Pandemic Hit to Travel, Trade Caused Record Drop in Carbon Emissions

Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in central China’s Shanxi Province on Nov. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Sam McNeil, File)

(CN) — The coronavirus pandemic’s crippling blow to the global economy has also led to a record drop in carbon emissions, researchers said in a new analysis released Thursday, though the drop is nowhere near what’s needed to halt the potentially disastrous impacts of climate change over the longer-term.

The findings from a global team of researchers are not exactly surprising, as previous studies have already suggested a temporary environmental upside to the pandemic.

Still, the researchers said their study, based on real data rather than projections, provides a more “comprehensive” look at how the loss of trillions of dollars-worth of global economic activity significantly impacted humans’ environmental footprint.

“I think we really need to have a conversation to look to implement strategies for ensuring our economies are sustainable as well as resilient as we move away from this,” Arunima Malik, a lecturer at the University of Sydney and co-author on the study, said in an interview.

In the study, published Thursday in the science journal Plos One, Malik and researchers in Indonesia, Japan and other countries looked at a wide range of economic and emissions data from the onset of the pandemic through May 22. The analysis concluded that the pandemic stunted global economic consumption by $3.8 trillion, destroying 147 million full-time jobs in the process, a number that represents 4.2% of the world’s total workforce.

Meanwhile, as global travel ground to a halt, factories shuttered and trade slowed, carbon emissions fell by a record 2.5 gigatonnes, the study said.

“The current drop in [greenhouse gas] emissions is larger than anything the world has seen since humans started to use fossil fuel,” the researchers wrote. “None of the attempts by any government or any international agreement in the 32-year history of intergovernmental climate policy has had such a dramatic mitigation effect.”

The red dotted line shows the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed each year to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. (Image via University of Sydney)

While the pandemic’s positive environmental impacts are certainly notable — the study found that a related drop in “particulate matter” pollution alone is “likely to save thousands of lives” — the researchers cautioned that those benefits could be “quickly erased” once the world economy starts getting back to normal.

A graph accompanying the study drives the point home: even with the record drop, our current level of carbon emissions above 50 gigatons per year still needs to fall to below 10 gigatons per year by 2040 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement and the level at which experts say the worst impacts of climate change could be avoided.

The analysis was performed with the help of supercomputers at a University of Sydney lab where the researchers calculated the pandemic’s impacts to trade across global supply chains. While the economic impacts were most directly felt by the U.S., Asia and Europe, the study noted that “ripple effects” from those regions spread “across the entire world economy.”

“On one hand the pandemic has shown the risks and fragility of our highly interconnected and interdependent economies and societies, which highlights the need for global cooperation and solidarity, as no country will be ‘immune’ to situations developing elsewhere,” the researchers wrote.

“On the other hand, it has shown that we can face crises with concerted and decisive interventions and changes in behaviours and lifestyles, which can lead to significant environmental benefits while protecting people’s livelihoods at the same time,” the study said. “Both are key factors to address the wider environmental crises.”

Going forward, the researchers said, governments could potentially avoid a dramatic rebound in carbon emissions when trade activity returns to pre-pandemic levels by boosting funding for renewable energy and encouraging investments in work-from-home and teleconferencing capabilities to limit travel, among other measures.

“We really need to implement strategies for ensuring that we are resilient,” Malik said, “so that if such a thing happens again, then we can ensure that we are able to tackle this from a social and economic point of view, and also that we ensure we reduce emissions.”

In a separate report released Thursday by the global research firm Rhodium Group, analysts also pointed to the prospect of a post-pandemic “green recovery.”

“Timely and well-targeted clean energy and climate investments made as part of sustained stimulus and recovery efforts can help shorten the duration of the crisis, accelerate the recovery, and deliver emission reductions based on sustained transformational changes needed to reach long-term decarbonization,” the firm said.

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