Global Carbon Emissions Plunged 17% at Peak of Pandemic

Figure a (left) is annual mean daily emissions from 1970–2019 (black line). The red line shows the daily emissions up to end of April 2020 estimated here. Figure b, is daily CO2 emissions in 2020 (red line, as in Figure a). (Le Quéré, et al. / Nature Climate Change)

(CN) — Global carbon emissions have fallen drastically as the world continues to grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic but scientists warn that this silver lining may not last. 

A study released Tuesday in the journal Nature Climate Change details a team of researchers’ efforts to understand how carbon emissions have been influenced by a world in varying states of lockdown. 

Using what researchers called a “confinement index” to help calculate how carbon emissions have been influenced during this time, researchers determined that daily carbon emissions decreased by around 17% globally when stay-at-home measures were at their peak in early April compared to average daily levels in 2019. 

Researchers say that this 17% reduction amounts to roughly 17 million tons of carbon dioxide that was not spewed into Earth’s atmosphere.

This significant drop in carbon emissions is startling given that, in the past decade alone, carbon dioxide emissions were increasing each year by around 1% until 2019, when there was no reported emission growth. 

The virus-related drop puts Earth’s daily carbon output on par with levels not seen since 2006.

A breakdown of the decrease shows that it was largely driven by a reduction in certain activities.

The reduction in surface-to-surface transport, such as car and bus trips, was one of the biggest factors for the drop in carbon emissions, accounting for 43% of the drop. Reduced emissions from power and industrial sources also heavily contributed, making up another 43% of the drop.

Less air travel, a sector that has been one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak, also played a role in the reduction. However, the aviation industry only makes up about 3% of global emissions and its reduced activities accounted for just a tenth of the emissions drop.

The study also showed that while the world overall saw a 17% reduction in carbon emissions, individual nations saw an average reduction of 26% when confinement measures were at their peak.

Researchers suggest that how long these numbers hold and where they go from here in the short term is strongly dependent on how much longer the world keeps some of its social distancing restrictions in place.

But researchers also warn that these surprise climate benefits are not likely to persist in the long term, because the reductions were brought about by temporary societal adjustments to a global outbreak and not by an authentically overhauled approach to carbon management. Should the world simply return to business as usual once the coronavirus threat has passed, the trend of reduced emissions will likely end.

Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom and first author if the study, said that because of the reactionary way these changes occurred, they are not likely to last.

“The decrease in emissions we observe now is unlikely to last because it is forced and not desirable, and because it is not supported by more fundamental changes in the way we use and produce energy,” Le Quéré said in an email. “Our study shows that behavior change can help reduce emissions, but there are serious limits to what it can achieve.”

Le Quéré points out, however, that this time has presented the world with a chance to make substantive changes for the better that could both help our planet’s climate and prepare us for future problems yet to come.

“Governments could now set in place actions to support broader changes in society, by focusing economic recovery on those actions and investments that support jobs and reduce emissions,” Le Quéré said. “For example, transforming mobility to be all electric by setting conditions to governments’ support to the car industry to accelerate the production of electric cars and move away from petrol and diesel cars.”

Le Quéré even suggests that there are some possible solutions that are both good for the environment and also perfectly tailored for the world’s current health-related restrictions. 

“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,” Le Quéré said in a statement accompanying the study.

Le Quéré and her team note the scars society may wear going forward after our stint in isolation may help to move the carbon needle to some extent, but it will simply not be enough.

Only through meaningful policy changes can such change be truly sustainable in the long run, the study authors say.

“The social trauma of confinement and associated changes could alter the future trajectory in unpredictable ways, but social responses alone, as shown here, would not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions,” the study authors write. 

How the world responds to the current coronavirus crisis could potentially influence the trajectory of carbon emissions for decades to come, they conclude.

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