Using the COVID-19 pandemic to transform the energy sector

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report identifies the negative and positive lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to energy consumption and demand, and recommends several immediate actions.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

As a result of the pandemic’s confinement and containment policies, energy demand and resulting energy-related carbon emissions declined by an estimated 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020 – a record drop according to researchers at Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project. However, the reduction is likely to be short-lived if structural changes do not occur.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused foreseeable positive and negative disruptions to the global energy sector. This has revealed opportunities that can be learnt from to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement pledges, with the positive disruptions showing us the possibility of a more sustainable and resilient future.

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report recommends actions based on the opportunities and vulnerabilities in energy systems that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light.

“The pandemic is a threat, but also an opportunity, because it showed that the system we have spent a lot of money and resources on is not working the way it should, so the crisis should be used to draw up new budgets, take new actions, and rebuild society.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

The report highlights that solutions previously thought to be out of reach are far more possible than expected. One such positive outcome is the digitalization of physical activities, such as attending work, schools, conferences, and other gatherings online. This has resulted in short-term lifestyle changes — introducing and normalizing digital solutions for a mass audience — which the report recommends capitalizing on in a post-COVID society.

Some companies, like Spotify, a music streaming service, have announced that they will let their employees work remotely from anywhere after the pandemic. The report suggests that more companies and governments should do the same, as digitalization offers opportunities to use resources more efficiently, and so has the potential to make consumption more sustainable and to reduce carbon footprints.

Efforts to digitalize and reduce the population’s carbon footprint work hand-in-hand with the need to reinvent urban spaces to reach the SDGs and combat climate change.

Cities consume 60-80% of global energy and produce more than 70% of carbon emissions. What’s more, 70% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.

The report proposes that cities should be redesigned into more sustainable ‘urban villages’ so that they are optimized for energy efficiency. One way to do this would be to redesign cities into compact neighborhoods where all amenities (shops, offices, schools, etc.) are within walking distance. Paris, France, for example, promotes self-sufficient neighborhoods, with all the essential amenities placed within a 15-minute radius. Several other cities like Melbourne, Australia, with its “20-minute neighborhoods” and the Nordhavn “5-minute neighborhood” in Copenhagen, Denmark, are promoting this new standard for the use of space and sustainable mobility.

Another key approach to reinventing urban spaces is prioritizing nature-based solutions by using parks, green roofs, green walls, and blue infrastructure to combat climate change and connect the population back to nature. This also means centering public spaces around people, by converting street spaces from car use to sidewalks and bike lanes, and enhancing the quality and safety of walking and biking infrastructures.

The report also recommends that cities be rebuilt to incorporate renewable energy. The costs for renewable technologies are declining quite fast, but Zakeri explained that the problem with moving to renewable energy is not the cost but a lack of understanding. Consumers, experts, and governments lack the knowledge to distribute, access and install these technologies. However, in recent times, scientists and other experts have brought more awareness to them and are helping the trend move forward.

The report states the importance of developing net zero-energy communities that have a holistic approach to energy-efficient building renovation and construction of new buildings. The net zero-energy design must consider the energy interactions between individual buildings and the broader energy system on a local level.

These recommended actions aren’t just about energy efficiency but about creating a more fulfilling life for all.

“Rebuilding cities to be more sustainable and resilient [to future crises] not only has the potential to reduce energy consumption but also create a more joyful lifestyle that improves the wellbeing and experience of people living in a city.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

For more information on rebuilding urban spaces, and addressing energy lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic read the IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report.

You can also watch the discussion on Rethinking Energy Solutions as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

 

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Exploring co-benefits of green cooling in China

By Xu Wang, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus and Assistant Professor at Beijing University of Technology and Pallav Purohit, researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

Xu Wang and Pallav Purohit write about their recent study in which they found that accelerating the transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient air conditioning in the Chinese residential building sector could expedite building a low-carbon society in China.

© Shao-chun Wang | Dreamstime.com

China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000 and reaching nearly 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption in 2017. This growth was largely driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort. As a result, space cooling accounted for more than 10% of total electricity growth in China since 2010 and around 16% of peak electricity load in 2017. That share can reach as much as 50% of peak electricity demand on extremely hot days, as seen in recent summers. Cooling-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity consumption consequently increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, given the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China [1].

In our recent publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we used a bottom-up modeling approach to predict the penetration rate of room air conditioners in the residential building sector of China at the provincial level, taking urban-rural heterogeneity into account. Our results reveal that increasing income, growing demand for thermal comfort, and warmer climatic conditions, could drive an increase in the stock of room air conditioners in China from 568 million units in 2015 to 997 million units in 2030, and 1.1 billion units in 2050. In urban China, room air conditioner ownership per 100 households is expected to increase from 114 units in 2015 to 219 units in 2030, and 225 units in 2050, with slow growth after 2040 due to the saturation of room air conditioners in the country’s urban households. Ownership of room air conditioners per 100 households in rural China could increase from 48 units in 2015 to 147 units in 2030 and 208 units in 2050 [2].

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer will help protect the climate by phasing down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants in cooling technologies [3]. Promoting energy efficiency of cooling technologies together with HFC phase-down under the amendment can significantly increase those climate co-benefits. It is in this context that we assessed the co-benefits associated with enhanced energy efficiency improvement of room air conditioners (e.g., using efficient compressors, heat exchangers, valves, etc.) and the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in air conditioning systems. The annual electricity saving from switching to more efficient room air conditioners using low-GWP refrigerants is estimated at almost 1000 TWh in 2050 when taking account of the full technical energy efficiency potential. This is equivalent to approximately 4% of the expected total energy consumption in the Chinese building sector in 2050, or the avoidance of 284 new coal-fired power plants of 500 MW each.

Our results indicate that the cumulative greenhouse gas mitigation associated with both the electricity savings and the substitution of high-GWP refrigerants makes up 2.6% of total business-as-usual CO2 equivalent emissions in China over the period 2020 to 2050. Therefore, the transition towards the uptake of low-GWP refrigerants is as vital as the energy efficiency improvement of new room air conditioners, which can help and accelerate the ultimate objective of building a low-carbon society in China. The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 8.8% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 9.4% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 2050 compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.

China can deliver significant energy savings and associated reductions in greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the building sector by developing and implementing a comprehensive national policy framework, including legislation and regulation, information programs, and incentives for industry. Energy efficiency and refrigerant standards for room air conditioning systems should be an integral part of such a framework. Training and awareness raising can also ensure proper installation, operation, and maintenance of air conditioning equipment and systems, and mandatory good practice with leakage control of the refrigerant during the use and end-of-life recovery. Improved data collection, research, and cooperation with manufacturers can equally help to identify emerging trends, technology needs, and energy efficiency opportunities that enable sustainable cooling.

References:

[1] IEA (2019). The Future of Cooling in China: Delivering on Action Plans for Sustainable Air Conditioning, International Energy agency (IEA), Paris.

[2] Wang X, Purohit P, Höglund Isaksson L, Zhang S, Fang H (2020). Co-benefits of energy-efficient air conditioners in the residential building sector of China, Environmental Science & Technology, 54 (20): 13217–13227 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16823]

[3] Purohit P, Höglund-Isaksson L, Dulac J, Shah N, Wei M, Rafaj P, Schöpp W (2020). Electricity savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions from global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 20 (19): 11305-11327 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16768]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

EGU2020 – a virtual experience of a first-time conference visit

Jarmo Kikstra, a research assistant in the IIASA Energy Program, shares his experience at EGU2020: Sharing Geosciences Online.

© Freepik

When our abstract for the 2020 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union (EGU2020) was accepted, I was very excited as this would be my first scientific conference. EGU2020 was a few weeks ago and took place completely virtually for the first time due to COVID-19. Let’s reflect upon what this experience was like.

As an early career researcher, I was very much looking forward to presenting the research I have worked on for many months. While I had presented preliminary results of this and other research before, both at my university and at my research department, these presentations had been internal or small-scale. EGU2020 was the first time presenting my research to the public, with experts from various fields being able to see the work and provide their input. It felt to me, like a first step into entering the pubic academic debate, an important step into becoming part of a research community.

But clearly, with the ongoing COVID pandemic, the conference was quite different to what I had expected my first conference to be like. EGU2020 became “EGU2020: Sharing Geoscience Online”. With 16,273 scientists participating last year, clearly a big effort took place to move such an event online, and with 26,219 individual online registrations in the online chat system, it seems to have been a success. But of course, not all registrations are equal, and participation numbers are not the only thing that count. So, how was this virtual EGU2020 experience for me?

© Jarmo Kikstra

First, my experience was much shorter than originally envisaged. While this is largely a matter of choice, I, and many other participants, participated in fewer sessions than we would have done during a physical conference. The simple fact of not being ‘out of office’ contributed to me continuing to work on other ongoing tasks for large parts of the week.

However, the chat session and oral presentation session I joined,  were surprisingly intense. Many presentations (that would have normally been poster presentations) were discussed in a plenary chat or oral session, and there was little time (~6 min) available for each presentation, meaning that content was very dense, and discussed at breakneck speed. In this way, a snapshot of the current state of research in my field was provided openly with everyone seeing all comments and all presentations in the session. Something that was missing that could have been useful, by complementing the main chat box, were separate channels for each presentation. This could have made follow-up discussions in the chat sessions easier, without interrupting main discussions on the current presentations, and therewith stimulating one of the most important parts of conferences – feedback on the work you have presented.

Proponents of virtual events will argue that doing this will greatly reduce the environmental footprint of science, as (air) travel is the biggest chunk of GHG emissions of many scientists. In fact, a central debate at EGU2020 discussed this topic, and the first question of the Cercedilla Manifesto reads: “Is a physical meeting necessary?”. Opponents however point to the current impossibilities of replacing the benefits of meeting in-person, including higher engagement, getting an academic network, unexpected (group) discussions, social encounters and events, and the possibility for live feedback, etc. Especially for early career scientists, it is often said that attending conferences is very beneficial.

Networking virtually will never be exactly the same as in person, and I don’t think this is something to aim for. Networking can happen in many different formats; however, it is clear to me now that we can still take quite a few steps into increasing the effectiveness of virtual networking during such events. For instance, I did not ‘meet’ new people, whereas that would have surely happened during a physical meeting, even if I would not have actively made an effort. So perhaps when organizers are putting together a virtual event, it may pay off to be creative in providing virtual networking opportunities.

Many argue that an online event is also much more conducive to opening up science, with an enormous potential for increasing the accessibility to science and scientific discussions and stimulating the development of knowledge. The great success of EGU2020 is probably already in its name: “Sharing Geoscience Online”. On the EGU2020 website you can find thousands of presentations, on all topics that are related to geosciences, with many contributions from IIASA. In other words, a lot of research content has been uploaded to one place, open to everyone; thereby turning this scientific event into a great resource for sharing, learning, asking questions and providing feedback. Discussions on this platform will be ongoing until the end of the month. So, take advantage of this opportunity and have a look!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Is India’s Ujjwala cooking gas program a success or failure?

By Abhishek Kar, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University, USA, and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus.

Abhishek Kar shares his thoughts on the Indian government’s Ujjwala program, which aims to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for clean cooking.

© Kaiskynet | Dreamstime.com

About 2.9 billion people depend on burning traditional fuels like firewood rather than modern cooking fuels like gas and electricity to cook their daily meals. The household air pollution caused when these fuels are burned, along with the resultant exposure to kitchen smoke causes several respiratory and other diseases. It is estimated that between 2 and 3.6 million people die every year due to lack of access to clean cooking fuels. It also has severe environmental effects like forest degradation and contributes to climate change. To address these challenges, the Indian Government launched a massive program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY, or Ujjwala) to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in May 2016.

My IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) project under Shonali Pachauri’s supervision was about analyzing consumption patterns of LPG in rural India. We looked at whether there was any differences in consumption patterns between the Ujjwala beneficiaries and general consumers. The analysis formed part of my PhD research and was eventually published as the cover story for the September 2019 issue of the journal, Nature Energy. The journal also invited us to write a policy brief, which was published in January 2020. The study’s findings received widespread media attention, especially in India. When I talk to journalists, they often ask whether the Ujjwala program is a success or a failure. I would like to use this opportunity to clear common misconceptions and share my thoughts.

The Ujjwala program’s original mandate was to tackle the challenge of “lack of access to clean fuel” and to make LPG affordable for poor women. The program provided capital subsidies to this end. Unfortunately, the policy document neither discussed usage of LPG as an exclusive or primary cooking fuel, nor did it provide any incentive for regular use (barring the universal LPG cylinder subsidy that is provided to everyone). The program was ambitious in terms of both scale and timeline, and fulfilled its original aim of providing LPG connections for millions of poor women.

Current debates around the program’s failure to result in smokeless kitchens are happening only because Ujjwala succeeded in fulfilling its original mandate of ensuring physical access. In my opinion, it is truly a remarkable achievement to have reached out to 80 million poor women within 40 months. The process not only involved massive awareness generation and community mobilization, but also ramping up the supply chain to meet increased demand. While I have a lot to say about how Ujjwala can be improved, I think it would be unfair to call it a failure. Access is the first step towards transition to clean fuels, and at least in this respect, it was an extraordinary success, making it a model of energy access for developing countries.

Our research shows that Ujjwala was able to attract new consumers rapidly, but those consumers did not start using LPG on a regular basis. Based on the literature and my own experience, there are five reasons why regular LPG use is a challenge for Ujjwala consumers, and the scheme did not have any specific provisions to effectively address them.

First, rural communities generally have easy access to free firewood, crop residues, cattle dung, etc. So why would they start paying for commercial fuel, when free fuel is readily available for cooking?

Secondly, Ujjwala (bravely) targeted poor women, who generally have limited disposable cash and seasonal, agriculture linked fluctuations in income. If there is no additional income, what costs would a poor family on an already tight budget have to cut to afford such a regular additional expense? While the program has made a 5 kg cylinder option available in response to this issue, the impact on LPG sales is still unknown.

Thirdly, home delivery of LPG cylinders is a challenge in most rural areas, as the cost of delivery for LPG distributors often outweighs the commission they receive. If there is no delivery option, poor rural families who often don’t have access to transport would need to arrange for a cylinder to be picked up from a far-off retail outlet. Oil Marketing Companies have vigorously been pushing for home delivery, but unless there are explicit incentives for this, the situation is unlikely to improve.

© Dmitrii Melnikov | Dreamstime.com

In the fourth place, gender dynamics make the situation even more complicated. Men are often financial decision makers who have to make budget cuts, while women are the primary beneficiaries of LPG in terms of a quick and smokeless cooking experience, with the side benefit of avoiding the drudgery of fuelwood collection. The laudable effort of the LPG panchayat platform, where women share their success stories and strategies to overcome opposition within their homes, is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that this will be sufficient to tackle a deep-rooted societal problem.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, people will have to stop using mud stoves and start using LPG stoves, which may involve real (or, perceived) changes in the taste, texture, look, and size of food items. As a student of habit change literature, I am surprised that anyone expected that such a switch would not be accompanied by behavior change interventions.

Ultimately, the Ujjwala scheme provided incentives to reduce the burden of the capital cost of LPG connections, and poor female consumers responded to it positively. This is a successful first step towards clean cooking energy transition. However, there were no scheme incentives to promote use, except general LPG subsidies, which is available to all, including the urban middle class. Consumers simply decided that the transition to LPG through regular purchase of LPG refills was not worth it, and did not take the next step. I would however not call this a failure of Ujjwala, as that was never the original program objective.

We have to acknowledge that Ujjwala’s phenomenal success in providing access to clean fuel has put the spotlight on its ineffectiveness to ensure sustained regular use. If you ask me, this is a classic case of the glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Or, as my PhD supervisor at the University of British Columbia, Hisham Zerrifi, puts it: “It depends!”

References:

[1] Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy DOI: 10.1038/s41560-019-0429-8 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15994]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

African cities are critical to global climate mitigation

By Chibulu Luo, PhD student at the University of Toronto (Civil Engineering) and 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant.

Luo’s recent publication in the Journal of Cleaner Production considers the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable communities when exploring policy insights for Dar es Salaam’s  energy transition.

Global discourse on sustainability rarely focuses on the Africa region as a key player in the global transition towards a cleaner low-carbon energy future. Filling this critical gap in the research is what has stimulated my doctoral studies.

Dar es Salaam © Timwege | Dreamstime

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, the Africa region contributed only 3.7% towards global energy-related GHG emissions in 2018, which perhaps explains why the region has remained largely ignored in current research on energy. However, with colleagues at the University of Toronto and Ontario Tech University, I assert that the growth of large cities such as Dar es Salaam should be critically considered in global efforts on climate change mitigation. My recently published paper estimates to the year 2050, the potential changes in residential energy use and GHG emissions in Dar es Salaam, among Africa’s most populous and fastest-growing cities. Like many African cities,contributes little to global GHG emissions; however, our paper projects a substantial increase in future emissions by the year 2050 – up to 4 to 24 times– which is quite overwhelming. According to our findings, this jump in emissions is due to a higher urban population in 2050 (expected to triple from 5 million in 2015, to as much as 16 million in 2050), and increased energy access and electricity consumption.

In developing these future estimates, we used the Shared-Socio-Economic Pathways (SSPs), developed by IIASA researchers, as a guiding narrative. While there may be some uncertainties with projecting GHG emissions pathways several years into the future, our findings could derive insights to the emissions pathways of other large African cities, and the critical role that these cities can play in global efforts to achieve the 1.5-degree, or even, 2-degree global warming target.

© Chibulu Luo

I first heard about the SSPs as a participant in the IIASA YSSP in 2016; this period was a tremendous time of growth and reflection in terms of my research direction. The opportunity to work amongst such a talented group of scientists in a collaborative environment and on issues that are globally relevant was an unforgettable experience. I especially enjoyed working with colleagues in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, where some of my early research ideas were formulated. At that time, I focused largely on resilience measures for infrastructure development in African cities, including Dar es Salaam.

 

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here.