The Covid-19 pandemic has caused more disruption to the energy sector than any other event in recent history, leaving impacts that will be felt for years to come. This IEA World Energy Outlook (WEO) examines in detail the effects of the pandemic, and in particular how it affects the prospects for rapid clean energy transitions. It is too soon to say whether today’s crisis represents a setback for efforts to bring about a more secure and sustainable energy system, or a catalyst that accelerates the pace of change. The pandemic is far from over, many uncertainties remain and crucial energy policy decisions have yet to be made.

This Outlook explores different pathways out of the Covid-19 crisis, with a particular focus on a pivotal next ten years to 2030. At this hugely consequential moment for the energy sector and for the urgent global response to climate change, the WEO-2020 illustrates the historic nature of the choices, opportunities and pitfalls that will shape where we go from here.

A huge shock to the system

Our assessment is that global energy demand is set to drop by 5% in 2020, energy-related CO2 emissions by 7%, and energy investment by 18%. The impacts vary by fuel. The estimated falls of 8% in oil demand and 7% in coal use stand in sharp contrast to a slight rise in the contribution of renewables. The reduction in natural gas demand is around 3%, while global electricity demand looks set to be down by a relatively modest 2% for the year.

The 2.4 gigatonnes (Gt) decline takes annual CO2 emissions back to where they were a decade ago. However, the initial signs are that there may not have been a similar fall in 2020 in emissions of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – from the energy sector, despite lower oil and gas output.

Key estimated energy demand, CO2 emissions and investment indicators, 2020 relative to 2019

There is no single storyline about the future

Uncertainty over the duration of the pandemic, its economic and social impacts, and the policy responses open up a wide range of possible energy futures. By considering different assumptions about these key unknowns, along with the latest energy market data and a dynamic representation of energy technologies, this Outlook examines:

  • The Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), in which Covid-19 is gradually brought under control in 2021 and the global economy returns to pre-crisis levels the same year. This scenario reflects all of today’s announced policy intentions and targets, insofar as they are backed up by detailed measures for their realisation.
  • The Delayed Recovery Scenario (DRS) is designed with the same policy assumptions as in the STEPS, but a prolonged pandemic causes lasting damage to economic prospects. The global economy returns to its pre-crisis size only in 2023, and the pandemic ushers in a decade with the lowest rate of energy demand growth since the 1930s.
  • In the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), a surge in clean energy policies and investment puts the energy system on track to achieve sustainable energy objectives in full, including the Paris Agreement, energy access and air quality goals. The assumptions on public health and the economy are the same as in the STEPS.
  • The new Net Zero Emissions by 2050 case (NZE2050) extends the SDS analysis. A rising number of countries and companies are targeting net-zero emissions, typically by midcentury. All of these are achieved in the SDS, putting global emissions on track for net zero by 2070. The NZE2050 includes the first detailed IEA modelling of what would be needed in the next ten years to put global CO2 emissions on track for net zero by 2050.

The shadow of the pandemic looms large

Global energy demand rebounds to its pre-crisis level in early 2023 in the STEPS, but this is delayed until 2025 in the event of a prolonged pandemic and deeper slump, as in the DRS. Prior to the crisis, energy demand was projected to grow by 12% between 2019 and 2030. Growth over this period is now 9% in the STEPS, and only 4% in the DRS. With demand in advanced economies on a declining trend, all of the increase comes from emerging market and developing economies, led by India. The slower pace of energy demand growth puts downward pressure on oil and gas prices compared with pre-crisis trajectories, although the large falls in investment in 2020 also increase the possibility of future market volatility. Lower growth in incomes cuts into construction activities and reduces purchases of new appliances and cars, with the effects on livelihoods concentrated in developing economies. In the DRS, residential floor space is 5% lower by 2040, 150 million fewer refrigerators are in use, and there are 50 million fewer cars on the road than in the STEPS.

Average annual GDP growth by scenario, 2019-2030
Global primary energy demand growth by scenario, 2019-2030

The worst effects are felt among the most vulnerable

Reversing several years of progress, our analysis shows that the number of people without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is set to rise in 2020. Around 580 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lacked access to electricity in 2019, three-quarters of the global total, and some of the impetus behind efforts to improve this situation has been lost. Governments are attending to the immediate public health and economic crisis, utilities and other entities that deliver access face serious financial strains, and borrowing costs have risen significantly in countries where the access deficit is high. Regaining momentum on this issue is particularly challenging in the DRS. In addition, we estimate that a rise in poverty levels worldwide in 2020 may have made basic electricity services unaffordable for more than 100 million people who already had electricity connections, pushing these households back to relying on more polluting and inefficient sources of energy.

Solar becomes the new king of electricity…

Renewables grow rapidly in all our scenarios, with solar at the centre of this new constellation of electricity generation technologies. Supportive policies and maturing technologies are enabling very cheap access to capital in leading markets. With sharp cost reductions over the past decade, solar PV is consistently cheaper than new coal- or gasfired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen. In the STEPS, renewables meet 80% of the growth in global electricity demand to 2030. Hydropower remains the largest renewable source of electricity, but solar is the main driver of growth as it sets new records for deployment each year after 2022, followed by onshore and offshore wind. The advance of renewable sources of generation, and of solar in particular, as well as the contribution of nuclear power, is much stronger in the SDS and NZE2050. The pace of change in the electricity sector puts an additional premium on robust grids and other sources of flexibility, as well as reliable supplies of the critical minerals and metals that are vital to its secure transformation. Storage plays an increasingly vital role in ensuring the flexible operation of power systems, with India becoming the largest market for utility-scale battery storage.

Change in global electricity generation by source and scenario, 2000-2040

…but the downturn creates risks for the backbone of today’s power systems

Electricity grids could prove to be the weak link in the transformation of the power sector, with implications for the reliability and security of electricity supply. The projected requirement for new transmission and distribution lines worldwide in the STEPS is 80% greater over the next decade than the expansion seen over the last ten years. The importance of electricity networks rises even more in faster energy transitions. However, the financial health of many utilities, especially in developing economies, has worsened as a result of the crisis. There is a disparity in many countries between the spending required for smart, digital and flexible electricity networks and the revenues available to grid operators, creating a risk to the adequacy of investment under today’s regulatory structures.

Covid-19 has catalysed a structural fall in global coal demand…

Coal demand does not return to pre-crisis levels in the STEPS and its share in the 2040 energy mix falls below 20% for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Coal use for power generation is heavily affected by downward revisions in electricity demand and its use in industry is tempered by lower economic activity. Coal phase-out policies, the rise of renewables and competition from natural gas lead to the retirement of 275 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity worldwide by 2025 (13% of the 2019 total), including 100 GW in the United States and 75 GW in the European Union. Projected increases in coal demand in developing economies in Asia are markedly lower than in previous WEOs, and not enough to offset falls elsewhere. The share of coal in the global power generation mix falls from 37% in 2019 to 28% in 2030 in the STEPS, and to 15% by then in the SDS.

…but without an additional policy push, it is too soon to see a rapid decline of oil

The era of growth in global oil demand comes to an end within ten years, but the shape of the economic recovery is a key uncertainty. In both the STEPS and the DRS, oil demand flattens out in the 2030s. However, a prolonged economic downturn knocks more than 4 million barrels per day (mb/d) off oil demand in the DRS, compared with the STEPS, keeping it below 100 mb/d. Changes in behaviour resulting from the pandemic cut both ways. The longer the disruption, the more some changes that eat into oil consumption become engrained, such as working from home or avoiding air travel. However, not all the shifts in consumer behaviour disadvantage oil. It benefits from a near-term aversion to public transport, the continued popularity of SUVs and the delayed replacement of older, inefficient vehicles.

In the absence of a larger shift in policies, it is still too early to foresee a rapid decline in oil demand. Rising incomes in emerging market and developing economies create strong underlying demand for mobility, offsetting reductions in oil use elsewhere. But transport fuels are no longer a reliable engine for growth. Oil use for passenger cars peaks in both the STEPS and the DRS, brought lower by continued improvements in fuel efficiency and robust growth in sales of electric cars. Oil use for longer-distance freight and shipping varies according to the outlook for the global economy and international trade. Upward pressure on oil demand increasingly depends on its rising use as a feedstock in the petrochemical sector. Despite an anticipated rise in recycling rates, there is still plenty of scope for demand for plastics to rise, especially in developing economies. However, since oil used to make plastics is not combusted, our scenarios see a peak in total oil-related CO2 emissions.

As things stand, the world is not set for a decisive downward turn in emissions…

Low-cost resources, low emissions and diversification are becoming the strategic watchwords for many producer economies and for oil and gas companies. Declines in production from existing fields create a need for new upstream projects, even in rapid energy transitions. However, investors are looking with increased scepticism at oil and gas projects due to concerns about financial performance and the compatibility of company strategies with environmental goals. Some of the financial concerns might ease if prices pick up and projects start to offer better returns, but questions about the industry’s contribution to reducing emissions are not going to go away.

Global emissions are set to bounce back more slowly than after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, but the world is still a long way from a sustainable recovery. CO2 emissions in the STEPS edge above 2019 levels on their way to 36 Gt in 2030. Emissions are lower in the event of a delayed recovery, but a weaker economy also drains momentum from the process of change in the energy sector. Lower fuel prices, compared with pre-crisis trajectories, mean that payback periods for efficiency investments are extended, slowing the rate of global efficiency improvement. The pandemic and its aftermath can suppress emissions, but low economic growth is not a low-emissions strategy. Only an acceleration in structural changes to the way the world produces and consumes energy can break the emissions trend for good.

…but there are much more sustainable pathways out of the crisis that also bring cleaner air than during the 2020 lockdowns

A step-change in clean energy investment, in line with the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan, offers a way to boost economic recovery, create jobs and reduce emissions. This approach has not featured prominently in the plans proposed to date, except in the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Korea, New Zealand and a handful of other countries. In the SDS, full implementation of the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan, published in June 2020 in co-operation with the International Monetary Fund, puts the global energy economy on a different post-crisis track. Additional investment of $1 trillion a year between 2021 and 2023 in the SDS is directed towards improvements in efficiency, low-emissions power and electricity grids, and more sustainable fuels. This makes 2019 the definitive peak for global CO2 emissions. By 2030, emissions in the SDS are nearly 10 Gt lower than in the STEPS.

Cities see major improvements in air quality by 2030 in the SDS, but without the disruptions to economic activity or people’s lives that cleared the air in 2020. Over the next ten years, lower emissions from urban power plants, residential heating units and industrial facilities in the SDS lead to falls of 45-65% in concentrations of fine particulate matter in cities, and cleaner transportation also brings down other street-level pollutants. Major reductions in indoor pollution in developing economies also come from improved access to clean cooking. The SDS does not eliminate all sources of air pollution entirely, but while the toll of premature deaths from poor air quality continues to rise in the STEPS, the SDS would avoid more than 12 million premature deaths over the next decade.

The transformation has to extend well beyond the power sector

The power sector takes the lead, but a wide range of strategies and technologies are required to tackle emissions across all parts of the energy sector. Emissions from the power sector drop by more than 40% by 2030 in the SDS, with annual additions of solar PV almost tripling from today’s levels. Electricity takes an ever-greater role in overall energy consumption, as rising output from renewables and nuclear power helps to bring down emissions from sectors – such as passenger transport – that are cost effective to electrify. The harder tasks for the transformation of the energy sector lie elsewhere, particularly in industrial sectors such as steel and cement, in long-distance transport, in the balancing of multiple changes taking place in parallel across a complex energy system, and in securing and maintaining public acceptance. Maintaining a strong pace of emissions reductions post-2030 requires a relentless focus on energy and material efficiency, electrification, and a strong role for low-carbon liquids and gases. Low-carbon hydrogen and CCUS scale up significantly, building on a decade of rapid innovation and deployment in the 2020s.

Global supply of low-carbon fuel by scenario, 2019-2040

Getting to net zero will require unwavering efforts from all

To reach net-zero emissions, governments, energy companies, investors and citizens all need to be on board – and will all have unprecedented contributions to make. The changes that deliver the emissions reduction in the SDS are far greater than many realise, and need to happen at a time when the world is trying to recover from Covid-19. They rely on continuous support from key constituencies across the world, while also meeting the development aspirations of a growing global population. Achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050 goes well beyond this, both in terms of the actions within the energy sector and those that would be required elsewhere. For any pathway to net zero, companies will need clear long-term strategies backed by investment commitments and measurable impact. The finance sector will need to facilitate a dramatic scale up of clean technologies, aid the transitions of fossil fuel companies and energy-intensive businesses, and bring low-cost capital to the countries and communities that need it most. Engagement and choices made by citizens will also be crucial, for example in the way they heat or cool their homes, or how they travel.

At a moment when Covid-19 has created extraordinary uncertainty, governments have unique capacities to act and to guide the actions of others. They can lead the way by providing the strategic vision, the spur to innovation, the incentives for consumers, the policy signals and the public finance that catalyses action by private actors, and the support for communities where livelihoods are affected by rapid change. They have the responsibility to avoid unintended consequences for the reliability or affordability of supply. Our secure and sustainable energy future is a choice – for consumers, investors and industries, but most of all, for governments.

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