This Earth Day has added meaning, well beyond its 50th milestone. The global shutdown response to a dark pandemic has revealed clear skies and vistas not seen in entire decades, along with joblessness and economic freefall not seen in entire lifetimes.
Beyond the extraordinary efforts of health care workers, the examples of companies, industries and people stepping up to respond to the crisis are also extraordinary, and too numerous to fully mention. Engine, equipment and vehicle manufacturers turned their engine filtration products into protective masks (Cummins), automakers produced life-saving ventilators in record time (General Motors), one invented laboratory tests and equipment for the virus (Bosch), others are using 3D printing capabilities to churn out face shields (Deere, AGCO).
Even as the pandemic battle wages on, thoughts turn to what happens next: When and how do industries restart? Are there jobs? Are there customers? What is the new normal? What does recovery look like?
Restoring jobs, economic stability and prosperity are top of mind, with investments being made by governments and industries. The opportunity for a green recovery, one that invests in new fuels and energy technologies guided by greenhouse gas emissions profiles, is prescient. In this tumultuous time, we would be wise to set aside the “either-or’s”, “either you are 100 percent behind a 100 percent renewable clean energy future, or you are not”, in favor of certainty and accommodation; a little give and take on all sides.
Do what is possible right now to help dig out of this hole. Some future plans and milestones will inevitably be delayed or shelved entirely until clearer days are ahead, and that’s reasonable and okay.
The fuels and energy that power our global economies have been turned upside down by this pandemic. An overabundance of very cheap oil comes at a time of dramatically reduced demand. U.S. gasoline consumption is 46 percent lower than last year at this time, while diesel is down only 18 percent, owing to its primary role in trucking, fueling the essential services that deliver the goods, the food and the personal protective equipment.
Alternatives to diesel under serious development and testing before the pandemic will too be impacted. Truck, engine and equipment makers are looking for the best for their customers, and recognize the opportunities of alternatives. That means that diesel will yield some of its 97 percent market share in the heavy-duty side of commercial trucking to new alternatives like hydrogen fuel cells or battery-electric technology.
Use of low-carbon fuels including biodiesel and renewable diesel fuel have proven capabilities and can bring valuable near-term benefits.
The largest trucks and heaviest equipment and machines continue to rely on diesel, and manufacturers are improving on diesel’s energy efficiency and low emissions, along with meeting new government efficiency and upcoming further low emission mandates. Last mile deliveries in urban areas are being made today with all electric trucks, albeit in very limited test markets. Exactly how much and when new technologies become more mainstream now must factor in the economic impacts of COVID-19.
For this Earth Day, we can reflect that environmental challenges have been initially identified and tackled, regulated, litigated and retackled still as we learn more. The quality of air, water and land and the disposition of waste, all have a share of success and failure stories and are all ongoing concerns with mixed messages and outcomes. Relatively easy steps and measures have mostly been done, the low-hanging fruit is long gone. Future gains are more challenging, often at higher cost and with more tradeoffs. And now the pandemic factor.
What have we accomplished in the 50 years’ time we’ve been celebrating Earth Day? A lot. What’s to come? A lot more, it must.