COVID-19 and the Need for Climate Action: Extending Grace to Solar and Wind by Ivy Jiang

The Crisis

The world is suffering through a debilitating pandemic: non-essential businesses are out of commission, academic institutions have shifted online, and families are scrambling to protect themselves and their loved ones. As we rush to minimize damage in the face of an existential threat, the need for drastic action is evident. The United States undeniably fumbled its response to COVID-19, resulting in the greatest number of cases in the world[1] despite months to prepare from the examples of Italy and China. Even as we saw countries like South Korea[2] flatten the curve with remarkably extensive testing and citizen compliance, the United States has failed to secure enough testing, personal protective equipment for medical staff, and a cohesive response to enforce social distancing. We’ve made the issue partisan[3] instead of heeding expert public health advice—similar to our response to another crisis.

The Parallels

Reactions to the pandemic mirror our nation’s response to climate change on a vastly accelerated timeline. Initial denial[4] and rejection of scientific recommendations coupled with conspiracy theories[5] about China[6], subsequent criticism of solutions as too expensive[7], and finally—foreseeable in climate change but not yet actualized—lack of preparation that threatens to overwhelm the system when the problem inevitably materializes. As a psychologist who studies the spread of misinformation quotes, “We went through the stages of climate change denial in the matter of a week.” This rapid scale of crisis should inspire us to take the climate problem more seriously than ever. Implementing unprecedented and drastic social distancing measures has saved lives by flattening the curve in the novel coronavirus crisis[8]. Preemptive action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change will also protect against massive loss of life.

One critical component of mitigation is the wide-scale transition to clean energy. The IPCC, a global coalition of scientists modeling climate effects, released forecasts that renewable energy must range from 70-85% of the electricity share in 2050 to avoid the worst of climate change[9]. For comparison, the share of renewables in global electricity generation was 26% in 2018, with growth driven primarily by solar PV and wind installations[10].

The Problem

Some American Congressional leaders have blocked attempts to include any “green” appeals in the stimulus package. The $2.2 trillion “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economics Security Act”—also known as the “CARES Act”—budgeted $500 billion for corporate bailouts, including relief funds for companies like Delta and Boeing[11]. However, Congress rejected requests from renewable energy companies along with demands like airline accountability for carbon offsets[12]. The solar and wind industries that were already struggling from disruptions to supply chains in the trade war with China[13] are now faced with deadlines that they can’t meet.

These industries are seeking extensions of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and wind Production Tax Credit (PTC)[14]. The ITC and PTC are critical federal tax credits with strict construction deadlines—they’ve proven to be instrumental incentives for renewable energy growth in the US[15]. The current ITC is a 26 percent tax credit for solar system projects that begin construction in 2020. However, the credit decreases to 22 percent for projects that begin construction in 2021. Similarly, the PTC provides a tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for a decade for wind projects commencing construction this year[16]. The problem is that many projects are at risk of not starting construction as planned in 2020 due to labor disruption from social distancing mandates, delivery delays caused by China’s economic shutdown, and serious financing concerns[17].

In an industry with already slim margins, the economics of installation vary greatly between the 26 percent tax deduction of a solar system in 2020 versus a 22 percent tax deduction of a system in 2021[18]. Delaying to the following year and losing that 4 percent in tax credits could derail thousands of planned wind and solar projects. Investors are spooked and hundreds of thousands of jobs are threatened[19], while sidetracking tens of billions of investment dollars.

The Potential Solution

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is calling for a fourth stimulus plan addressing infrastructure[20]. Seeing as the solar industry alone injects $19 billion annually[21] in infrastructure investments across America, this would be a second chance for lawmakers to support the clean energy industry that employs nearly 3.3 million Americans[22]. Extending ITC and PTC tax credit deadlines that would have applied in 2020 to the following year is imperative.

The COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on the need to take scientists’ recommendations quickly and early, to prepare for the worst outcomes, and to take drastic measures in the face of an existential threat. To promote a reduced-carbon future, we must—at a minimum—maintain the trajectory of projects already set in motion before this crisis. Any postponement of transitions to clean energy means less actionable mitigation before the climate experiences feedback loops that we can no longer control. Given the importance of renewable energy to energy independence, job growth, and climate change mitigation, Congressional extensions of ITC and PTC financing options are essential inclusions in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill.

 

Endnotes

[1] Nicole Chavez, Holly Yan, and Madeline Holcombe, “US has more known cases of coronavirus than any other country,” CNN, March 27, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/health/coronavirus-thousand-deaths-thursday/index.html.

[2] Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun, “How South Korea Flattened the Curve,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html.

[3] David Roberts, “Partisanship is the strongest predictor of coronavirus response,” Vox, March 31, 2020, https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/3/31/21199271/coronavirus-in-us-trump-republicans-democrats-survey-epistemic-crisis.

[4] David Leonhardt, “A Complete List of Trump’s Attempts to Play Down Coronavirus,” The New York Times, March 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html.

[5] Calvin Woodward, “China pushed back on Trump administration coronavirus theory,” Associated Press, April 16, 2020, https://apnews.com/887c6ae4116951bb9bc7375e3dc8b158.

[6] Edward Wong, “Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But.” The New York Times, November 18, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/world/asia/china-trump-climate-change.html.

[7] Media Matters Staff, “Glenn Beck says older Americans should return to work: ‘Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country,’” Media Matters, March 24, 2020, https://www.mediamatters.org/glenn-beck/glenn-beck-says-older-americans-should-return-work-even-if-we-all-get-sick-i-would.

[8] Russell Berman, “The City That Has Flattened the Coronavirus Curve,” April 12, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-san-francisco-london-breed/609808/.

[9] Emma Foehringer Merchant, “IPCC: Renewables to Supply 70%-85% of Electricity by 2050 to Avoid Worst Impacts of Climate Change,” Greentech Media

[10] IEA, “Renewables 2019,” October 2019, https://www.iea.org/reports/renewables-2019/distributed-solar-pv.

[11] Jim Tankersley et al., “The Coronavirus Economy: When Washington Takes Over Business,” The New York Times, March 26, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/business/economy/coronavirus-relief-bill.html.

[12] Alexander Bolton, “McConnell excoriates Democrats over stimulus demands,” The Hill, March 23, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/489021-mcconnell-excoriates-democrats-over-stimulus-demands.

[13] Xiaojing Sun, “Look to the Solar Industry for Answers About the Trade War’s Impact,” Greentech Media, August 8, 2019, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/look-to-the-solar-industry-for-answers-about-trade-wars-impact.

[14] Abigail Ross Hopper and Thomas C. Kiernan, “Joint Letter to Congress from SEIA & AWEA,” SEIA and AWEA, March 18, 2020, https://www.seia.org/research-resources/joint-letter-congress-seia-awea.

[15] SEIA, “Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC),” n.d., https://www.seia.org/initiatives/solar-investment-tax-credit-itc.

[16] WINDExchange, “Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit for Wind,” U.S. Department of Energy Wind Energy Technologies Office, n.d., https://windexchange.energy.gov/projects/tax-credits.

[17] Hopper and Kiernan, “Joint Letter to Congress.”

[18] Energy Sage, “Investment tax credit for solar power,” March 11, 2020, https://www.energysage.com/solar/cost-benefit/solar-investment-tax-credit/.

[19] Hopper and Kiernan, “Joint Letter to Congress.”

[20] Emily Cochrane, “Nancy Pelosi Is Already Talking About the Next Stimulus Bill for Coronavirus Relief,” The New York Times, April 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/us/politics/coronavirus-stimulus-relief-congress.html.

[21] SEIA, “Solar Industry Letter to U.S. Congress on COVID-19 Recovery Legislation,” March 23, 2020, https://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/Solar%20Industry%20Letter%20COVID-19%20Economic%20Stimulus%203-23-20_0.pdf.

[22] Silvio Marcacci, “Renewable Energy Job Boom Creates Economic Opportunity As Coal Industry Slumps,” Forbes, April 22, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2019/04/22/renewable-energy-job-boom-creating-economic-opportunity-as-coal-industry-slumps/#63f52eea3665.

 

4 thoughts on “COVID-19 and the Need for Climate Action: Extending Grace to Solar and Wind by Ivy Jiang

  1. Ivy, thank you for writing such a timely, interesting article!

    I agree with you undeniable parallel between the United State’s inadequate action on climate change and their improper preparation for the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, I think the analogy can go even further when you look at how individual states have been dealing with both crises. States like California and New York have listened to scientists on both issues–passing sweeping legislation to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050 and implementing strict stay-at-home orders during the current crisis. On the other hand, states such as Florida which have historically been led by climate-denying politicians are failing to act promptly to suppress the spread of the coronavirus. This past weekend, the Jacksonville beach was re-opened despite the state having cases numbering over 25,000. As you wrote in your article, it goes to show that when scientists warn on an impending crisis they aren’t lying and we should take their policy recommendations seriously both as it relates to COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

    I also think that your policy recommendations are well-suited to the current crisis. An infrastructure bill driven by renewable energy growth would be beneficial for the environment and the US economy. After the Great Depression, FDR formed the Civilians Conservation Corps to help spur job growth and make much-needed improvements to US Park infrastructure. Similarly, in the wake of this impending recession the U.S. government must form another Civilian Conservation Corps focused on building the United States clean energy infrastructure: building electric storage units, wind turbines, solar panel installations, and more.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful article! I learned a lot reading it.

    The parallels between COVID-19 and climate change are so interesting. I’ve mainly been thinking about how the responses are different, but you’ve laid out a very clear explanation of how the responses to the two crises have been quite similar in ways that I had not considered. These comparisons highlight some of the major issues in the US government currently. You make an important argument about the need for people to listen to scientists.

    One large difference I see between COVID-19 and climate change has been what comes after those stages of denial and lack of preparedness. For the most part, Americans have drastically changed their everyday lives in response to COVID-19 as they follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines. Yet it is a painstaking effort to get people to make even small changes in their lives to combat climate change, such as using public transportation or walking/biking instead of driving, using reusable bottles and mugs instead of single-use plastic ones, or buying second-hand products instead of new ones. The difference in temporality between the two issues is, I believe, the key factor here. With COVID-19, there is an incredible immediacy and urgency, as choosing to come into close contact with people could literally become a life-or-death issue. Climate change, on the other hand, occurs on a much longer time scale. As much as people say they care about their (sometimes hypothetical) children or grandchildren, it is quite hard for people to inconvenience themselves to mitigate a problem they may not live to see the most extreme effects of (although the effects of climate change are certainly already being felt, and for many people taking action on climate change will be a matter of life-or-death).

    It’s also interesting to consider the relationship between climate change and COVID-19. Climate change and related habitat loss for many species has driven more species into closer contact with humans, increasing the likelihood of zoonotic disease transmission. Additionally, air pollution has been linked to health problems, particularly pulmonary ones. These types of health issues are risk factors for COVID-19 as they increase the chance of a more severe reaction to the disease. While COVID-19 and climate change may in some ways seem like competing interests right now, the issues are actually linked. As you point out, I think including renewable energy support in a stimulus package is crucial. While the economic downturn is and will continue to be devastating, it can also serve as an opportunity to further transition the US to clean energy, especially given the hit the oil industry has taken, and it is definitely not the time for the US to backslide on this transition.

  3. Awesome article! I love the parallels you draw between the COVID-19 crisis and action on climate change. It certainly is interesting watching the similarities between the two scenarios, and it definitely highlights the differences as well. An especially interesting point made in the blog that is relevant to environmental policy is how the COVID-19 crisis, much like the environmental crisis, has become partisan, and how this manifests as unsuccessful policies that ignore helpful and empirical scientific knowledge. Another interesting point made is the disparity in what we are willing to give up in our daily lives between the COVID-19 and climate crises. Regardless of the fact that both crises have become partisan, and thus current policies are not the most effective solutions in both cases, we have given up much more convenience, and even many peoples’ livelihoods, during the COVID-19 crisis, while we have been relatively unwilling to change our behavior when it involves inconvenience during the climate crisis. I wonder what role discount rate plays in this behavior disparity. Perhaps because COVID-19 provides a tangible threat right here and now, we are more willing to compromise our behavior, whereas the climate crisis feels farther away, so there is a higher discount rate on future damages, which disincentivizes changes in behavior. Either way, there are parallels between those that are unwilling to change behavior in both crises. For example, one argument against changing behavior in the climate crisis is “I won’t live to see the damages,” which is very similar to less-at-risk demographics saying “I won’t get seriously ill from COVID-19.” Both arguments disregard the danger of their actions to the lives of others, and discount future damages to society.

  4. Hi Ivy! Thank you so much for writing this. I found it incredibly thought-provoking and well articulated.

    I think the similarities in how the US has handled climate change and COVID-19 are indicative of a major flaw in American policy-making: a focus on reactivity rather than proactivity. This has been further exasperated by the “anti-science” administration currently in power. This is particularly pertinent because COVID-19 is, in part, an environmental issue and can be linked to the same causes as climate change.

    As COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, it is a result of spillover—animal diseases “making the jump” over to the human population. Spillover largely results from land-use change, particularly rural-to-urban migration, but it can also come from agricultural practices. For the sake of the future, both in terms of climate change and zoonotic diseases, we need to take a really close look at land-use change. Keeping “wild space wild” is important for controlling carbon emissions, as well as for protecting humans from wildlife (and vice versa).

    Going back to your main point, I think your argument for including green energy in stimulus packages is incredibly valuable. The current volatility of markets must not kill the progress we’ve made on renewables. Hopefully, this crisis is able to provide the necessary re-contextualization on what does/doesn’t matter in our world, pushing voters and policymakers to do what’s right.

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