The COVID-19 pandemic caused radical temporary breaks with past energy use trends. How post-pandemic recovery will impact the longer-term energy transition is unclear. Here we present a set of global COVID-19 shock-and-recovery scenarios that systematically explore the effect of demand changes persisting. Our pathways project final energy demand reductions of 1–36 EJ yr−1 by 2025 and cumulative CO2 emission reductions of 14–45 GtCO2 by 2030. Uncertainty ranges depend on the depth and duration of the economic downturn and demand-side changes. Recovering from the pandemic with energy-efficient practices embedded in new patterns of travel, work, consumption and production reduces climate mitigation challenges. A low energy demand recovery reduces carbon prices for a 1.5 °C-consistent pathway by 19%, lowers energy supply investments until 2030 by US$1.8 trillion and softens the pressure to rapidly upscale renewable energy technologies.