While it almost seems inappropriate to even suggest that there are silver linings to the pandemic, there have undeniably been environmental benefits. Such an abrupt and total shift in how society operates is bound to produce unintended changes, and it just so happens that many of them have shed light on how much better we could be doing to protect our climate.
Less traffic on the streets is leading to lower air pollution; slowed mining and industrial operations are impacting the environment less frequently; and we’re even seeing UK residents stuck at home being more conscious about cardboard recycling. Across the board, the pandemic that has been such a disaster in general has been something of a boon to our environment.
Beyond all of these changes though, we could also see a more significant long-term effect of the pandemic that could meaningfully alter the course of climate protection in the UK and around the world. That effect would be the demise of big oil and the hastened takeover of renewable energy.
The oil industry took one of the most brutal hits from the pandemic in its early days. Almost as soon as lockdowns began, a massive supply surplus occurred — meaning oil producers were suddenly stocked with far more oil than they could sell to a world suddenly devoid of demand. Drastic measures were taken fairly swiftly by leading oil nations, and production was slashed to keep the surplus from getting further out of control. But the current oil trade shows that these drastic measures only had a mild impact at best. The industry remains wounded, with crude oil trading well below its ideal range, and oil companies around the world struggling as a result.
As it so happens, the oil industry is experiencing this profound misfortune at a time when renewable energy is already catching on more than it has at any other point in history. In fact, recent data showed that renewable power generation reached a 44.6% share in the UK during 2020’s second quarter — the second-highest share on record (and up from 35.6% in Q2 of 2019). The bulk of this spike is due to progress with offshore wind, with solar also gaining ground. But the big picture is clear: Renewables have begun to account for more and more energy in the UK, and were doing so even before the pandemic’s impact on oil was felt. It’s also an area where Wales shines – the Wind Farm off the North Wales Coast at Gwynt y Môr is the fifth largest in the world, and Pen y Cymoedd Wind Farm in the South Wales valleys is the largest on-shore wind farm in England and Wales.
The battle for renewable energy still isn’t over, of course. The pandemic is going to hit renewables in certain respects as well, and it’s not out of the question that oil could bounce back more significantly in time. But with renewables already catching on, and already becoming more affordable — and with the pandemic having shined an even brighter light on how much more we could be doing to protect the climate — there’s a significant opportunity for change here.
We may look back on 2020 as the year when renewable energy finally showed signs of being able to leapfrog big oil.