(this text was send as an open letter to the installations industry , media and policymakers, on 26 March 2020)
What is happening around the corona virus today, is understandable and needed, health is paramount. Let that be clear.
But we experience with Corona, what we will also have to face with climate and CO2. In both cases its a matter of time, or better of stretching time. With corona, to slow down the spreading, and to relieve hospitals, and to limit the suffering as much as possible. Also out CO2 emissions increase far too fast. At the current pace , globally, we will have run out of our CO 2 budget in 2027 to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, and in 2035 for 2 degrees . With all the misery that comes with that.
The point is to slow down those CO2 emissions, so that we have longer time with the maximum available emission budget, providing time to make the real transition, which is a huge effort and requires a lot of time. Also with CO2 we have to gain time, otherwise the climate is already overburdened before we have even started well.
I am thinking in particular of housing construction. The current ultimate goal adopted is clear: All homes need heavy insulation and be brought to a 0 energy performance. If we tackle that for each home individually, it will cost us a lot of time: for the Netherlands, suppose we would retrofit 100,000 homes per year, this adds up to 70 years of work. And even that speed is doubtful, we were already short of construction workers before Corona. Moreover, we do not have that time, the total emission curve (CO2 ‘distribution’) of all houses together will go up and up in this period : the first 10 or 20 years the effect of that complete home ‘make over’ is limited, after all the majority of
the houses have not yet been done and continue emitting like before. The maximum emission budget will therefor decrease significantly, just like the capacity in intensive care sections due to Corona . Just like avoiding that peak (at intensive care) for Corona, we have to avoid a peak of added CO2 emissions as soon as possible, at least partially. To be able to spread the same joint amount of CO2 emissions over a longer period, and therefore have more time to give all homes and neighborhoods a final upgrade. And avoid an intensive care situation in construction work as well as with casualties from climate change, like with heat waves.
What will happen with the corona virus, in say 1 year, is actually briefly what happens with climate and CO2 emissions over decades. Thats why it seems less urgent, but will be probably even a much larger operation as with corona. With enormous consequences, although they are less visible, and in any case spread over a longer period of time. And for all of us to stay inside out house, waiting on the couch until its over would help. But for years on end? That’s not going to work. Therefor it is is of the utmost importance, even in times of corona, not to loose sight on the climate goals., In fact, Corona gives us the opportunity to tackle that right now, and partly the help to solve the misery of corona that awaits us afterwards. Since immediately after corona we will have also an employment problem, many extra will be unemployed, as well as difficulties in starting up all kinds of construction projects, for example.
How to combine that then? With two simple measures: all homes in the Netherlands with a gas boiler, and that are almost all houses, get a heat pump in hybrid mode coupled with the gas boiler, and at the same time all roofs are equipped with solar panels. Under the condition to realize all this within 3 to 4 years. Straight forward installation work, with a major effect: gas consumption goes down sharply, the gas boiler only switches on when it is really cold, and with winters getting warmer that is less and less, and the extra electricity consumption becomes offset by the solar panels, which drastically reduces the CO2 emissions of residential energy demand. As a bonus we will have a huge boost for direct employment, with a quick start up. In this case the house does not need to be highly insulated or equipped with a new low temperature heating system.
Those two measures together, already reduce CO2 emissions and gas consumption quite a bit, 50% or more in some cases. Moreover: Those solar panels have to be installed anyway, and most heat pumps will need to be replaced before most houses get a complete retrofit anyway, when serviced one by one. ( for other countries another combination might be more feasible).
These are not spectacular measures, still avoiding a huge peak, with the largest threat averted. At least, there is room to keep the transition manageable, makes time available to built up “emission immunity”, without overloading the system, and avoid going through the barriers of 1.5 or even 2 degrees. That is, for the housing part. It creates time as well for all more sophisticated options , to prepare and introduce heat networks, hydrogen systems, or whatever it will be. Of course requires upscaling of the solar panel and heat pump production. But we understand how that works now, given the experience with upscaling the production of respirators for corona.
Hence my plea to start preparing a plan for that other threatening problem with equal vigor to tackle as we do now corona. To start after summer! We must now make an effort to reduce the “spread of emissions” , an make the problem manageable. It may not be ideal, the heat pumps could be improved , but waiting shed problems in many other areas, and a “CO2 lockdown” should be avoided at all times: a sudden stop on CO2 emissions when crossing the heat barriers, and many problems that go with that. And mind that there is few weeks delay in corona reaction time, we are talking about years if not decades of reaction time in terms of CO2 emissions for measures to take effect!. We’ll have to buy time this way. In addition, it helps relieve construction, limits the energy costs, provides direct employment, makes society more self-reliant, and therefore helps to keep CO 2 emissions in check.