What we learned in 2020: the year of the great acceleration

William Todts — December 20, 2020

2020 is one for the history books. At no time in recent memory have we had to change our behaviour so much so fast. Personal mobility was curbed in ways previously unimaginable, shops were closed and business travel disappeared. While this grabbed most of the attention, 2020 also saw a great acceleration in technology with EV sales and clean power surging to record levels. So, what will we remember 2020 for?

During the first lockdown EU oil demand was down by a third – a big cut but not as big as one might have expected considering how tough travel restrictions were. Once vaccination campaigns take off, economies will gradually reopen and travel will start to rebound. But to what levels? This depends on whether our 2020 habits will stick. Let’s look at the three most cited trends.

Shopping will never be the same again. Hundreds of millions of people have been forced to change their shopping routines overnight. Most of them will continue to shop and order food online even when physical stores and restaurants reopen. So expect this trend to continue in a big way. 

2020 is also when work life changed drastically. Remote working was there before but after Covid flexible working will become the norm with most office workers spending two or three days a week at home. That will lead to a drop in commuter travel (both for private and public transport).

And then there’s business travel. We used to joke that the only real solution to aviation’s climate problem was proper conference call software. Little did we know that Zoom, Microsoft Teams and the like would one day completely replace in-person business meetings.

For business travel – both air, car and train – it’s likely that there will be a big impact on emissions. But while homeworking, online sales and food delivery could reduce car travel, it could also boost freight, urban sprawl, and emissions from aircon and heating. Of course, there’s more to mobility than carbon emissions. Lockdowns gave us a taste of what mobility could be like in cities – clean air, quiet and cyclists and pedestrians ruling the streets. Whether this will be the future depends very much on what mayors do next.

From a climate perspective, the most lasting developments in 2020 are not the ones people will be talking about over the Christmas dinner table. As explained in the excellent pieces penned by my colleagues, we are in the midst of a technology revolution. 2020 marks the beginning of the battery age for cars, a breakthrough forzero-emission trucks, the beginning of hydrogen powered-shippingand aviation ,and the first year where 100% of additional energy demand was met by wind and solar. This potent cocktail of ever cheaper and cleaner electricity, and ever better and cheaper storage, will transform our lives and economies. And it will bring down the oil industry.

The absolute game changer in 2020 was the European Green Deal and the associated €750 billion recovery package agreed upon this summer. Nearly 40% of this should go towards green projects like renewables, batteries, building renovation, electrolysers or recharging infrastructure. It’s not just about the money, though. It is the clearest expression that EU leaders are willing to stick with the Green Deal even in difficult circumstances. I’m no fan of hyperbole but the European Green Deal is a project of epic ambition and importance. 

And perhaps that’s one of the biggest lessons from 2020. When faced with a challenge, mankind can rise to the occasion. The mobilisation of people, scientists, researchers and business in the fight against the virus and the rush towards a vaccine, is the best proof that almost nothing is impossible once we put our minds to it.

Recent analysis by UNEP shows the world is still on track for 3°C of warming but that with green recoveries in major economies, 2°C is now within reach. This is the difference between a safe and prosperous future for our children or a world where 2020 will be remembered as a walk in the park.

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