Woman in Canary Wharf, London, during coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 could cause biggest drop in carbon emissions since WW2

Image credit: REUTERS/Simon Dawson

A major study published in Nature Climate Change has found that social changes associated with the Covid-19 pandemic have “drastically” altered energy demand trends and could lead to global carbon emissions falling by up to 7 per cent this year.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in many populations entering “lockdown” conditions; the closure of international borders; disruption to both local and global supply chains, and massively altered transport and consumption patterns.

The study – which involved institutes across Europe, the US and Australia – compiled and analysed records of daily carbon emissions across 69 countries; 50 US states; 30 Chinese provinces; six economic sectors, and three levels of confinement, using data from daily electricity use and mobility tracking services.

The scientists found that daily global carbon emissions decreased by 17 per cent by early April 2020, compared with 2019 levels, with just under half from changes in surface transport. This represents a reduction from 100 million tonnes of carbon emitted per day to 83 million tonnes per day. Emissions in individual countries decreased by an average of 26 per cent at their peaks.

China saw the largest drop in emissions in April, followed by the US, Europe and India, although it has also been reported this week that air pollution levels in China have shot up to higher than pre-lockdown levels, due to the reopening of industrial facilities. 

While countries with firm lockdown restrictions saw emissions plunge from aviation (75 per cent) and land transport (50 per cent), emissions increased by 5 per cent from residential buildings.

“Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions,” said lead author Professor Corinne Le Quéré, a climate change expert based at the University of East Anglia. “These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary, however, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems.”

The impact on emissions over 2020 depends strongly on how governments, businesses and individuals adapt to the virus through the rest of the year. However, researchers estimated that emissions could drop by a minimum of four per cent (with pre-pandemic conditions returning by mid-June) or up to seven per cent (with some restrictions remaining in place worldwide until the end of 2020). This would represent the largest annual decrease in carbon emissions since the end of WW2.

The researchers wrote that it is unclear how long and deep the economic crisis resulting from Covid-19 would be and therefore how carbon emissions will be affected in the future. However, they advised keeping track of evolving carbon emissions in order to inform government responses to the pandemic and to “avoid locking future emissions trajectories in carbon-intensive pathways.”

“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post-Covid-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,” added Le Quéré.

“Opportunities exist to make real, durable changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement.

“For example, in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for wellbeing and air quality than building roads and it preserves social distancing.”

The dramatic annual drop in carbon emissions that could result from continued restrictions throughout the year is comparable to the reduction required every year across decades in order to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement, which aims to mitigate climate change by keeping global average temperature rises to within 2°C.

Stanford University’s Professor Rob Jackson added: “The drop in emissions is substantial but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments. We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behaviour.”

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