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Clash of crises: How a climate-resilient electricity system can help us tackle climate change and Covid-19

Covid-19 has already killed more than 600 000 people. At the same time, climate change impacts continue to worsen; 2020 is expected to be exceptionally hot in the northern hemisphere, and exceptionally stormy in the North Atlantic. Improving the reliability and resilience of electricity systems is a key way of managing both crises.

Many of the countries severely hit by the pandemic are also vulnerable to climate-related stresses. Out of the 50 countries with the largest number of Covid‑19 cases, 20 are also among the 50 countries that experienced the most extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018. The Covid-19 cases in these 20 countries accounted for around 55% of the total global infections and deaths as of 22 July 2020.

Climate risk and total Covid-19 cases in 50 countries with the largest number of infections, as of 22 July 2020

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Recent studies warn that many of these virus-stricken countries are likely to face extreme weather events this year, exacerbated by climate change. According to the European Commission’s Index for Risk Management, 17 out of the 50 countries with the largest number of Covid-19 cases have a high probability of exposure to floods, tropical cyclones or droughts.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there is a 75% chance that 2020 will be the hottest year since measurements began, and a 99.9% likelihood that it will be among the five warmest years on record. May 2020 was the planet’s warmest May since records began in 1880.

This record-breaking level of heat is likely to place a significant burden on healthcare systems already under strain due to the pandemic, given the harm caused to people’s health by heatwaves in Japan in 2018 and in Europe in 2019.

Some countries are also likely to have a busy storm season this year. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts above-average Atlantic hurricanes, including three to six major ones. Flooding and landslides caused by cyclones often place substantial pressure on heathcare systems, leading to inadequate sanitation and accelerating spread of diseases, as seen in Mozambique and India last year.

Reliable electricity supply plays a central role in protecting public health in hot weather. It enables the operation of medical devices, regulation of indoor temperature, refrigeration of food and medicine, and supply of potable water. Studies on the health effects of the 2003 New York City blackout found that power outages during hot weather increase mortality and hospitalisation significantly compared with heat alone.

Social distancing measures to counter Covid-19 lend additional importance to resilient electricity systems for healthcare because more medical visits are likely to be virtual. As recommended by the World Health Organization, countries like France encourage online medical consultations to limit the spread of the pandemic. People who are vulnerable to heat-related illness are more likely to choose virtual medical services than personal visits to doctors.

Unlike hospitals, however, few people have immediate back-up options for electricity and heavily rely on electricity services provided by utilities. Interrupted electricity supply due to reduced output from generators or failures in managing peak demand during heatwaves can significantly limit access to virtual medical services.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 23.9 million people were displaced within their countries in 2019 by weather-related disasters such as storms, cyclones, floods, wildfires and droughts. This is the highest figure since 2013 and almost three times the number of displacements caused by conflict and violence.

This year, countries will need to manage displaced people despite social distancing measures and concerns about containing the virus. For example, Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu had to lift their Covid-19 restrictions to enable evacuations when Tropical Cyclone Harold hit in April 2020. Evacuations can undermine efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19, given the difficulty at evacuation centres of enforcing social distancing, and sometimes also of ensuring access to clean water and sanitation.

Over 3 million people were forced to evacuate when Tropical Cyclone Amphan hit India and Bangladesh in May 2020. Daily cases of Covid-19 in West Bengal and Bangladesh showed a noticeable increase after the evacuations, despite social distancing measures such as making face masks compulsory and securing extra shelter space to limit occupancy.

Cyclone Amphan was only the tip of the iceberg. The North Indian Ocean cyclone basin is likely to see three to five additional cyclones a year, while the number of new COVID-19 infections is still soaring in the region. Jurisdictions in other cyclone basins, which are generally more active than the North Indian Ocean, need to learn from Cyclone Amphan and plan to provide safe shelters.

Access to electricity during displacement is particularly important if the evacuation is prolonged by persistent risks, damage to homes or limited mobility. Displaced people need reliable electricity so that medical equipment, cooling appliances and communication networks can be operated, which is why existing evacuation centres are generally equipped with back-up generators.

Covid-19 rules for social distancing will require greater efforts, however. More shelters are needed, each accommodating fewer people, to prevent the spread of the virus. Resilient electricity systems that isolate damaged parts in the event of outages could help. For instance, “islanding” schemes with strongly meshed networks and distributed generation could hedge risks and support more evacuation centres to better limit the spread of Covid-19.

The clash of crises has already taken a heavy toll. Yet many countries are just at the beginning of what is likely to be an exceptional summer heatwave and cyclone season, while the number of Covid-19 cases continue to increase.

Enhancing the resilience of electricity systems can support the increasing demand for robust healthcare services and for shelters, protecting the most vulnerable people from the pandemic and extreme weather events. Supportive policies and appropriate incentive mechanisms can boost climate resilience of electricity systems. These important investments can help us to better manage future crises and their cascading effects throughout economies and societies.

Efforts to recover from Covid-19 should enhance the resilience of electricity systems as a clear “no regrets” measure. National stimulus packages could include climate resilience considerations within measures to achieve sustainable recovery, leading to electricity systems that are more resistant to shocks.

The IEA will continue to provide state-of-the-art analysis and policy support for countries to build the climate resilience of their electricity systems, including in the IEA Electricity Security report to be released in October.