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COVID-19’s Effect on Global Emissions—Biggest Decline in CO2

The Corona pandemic continues to endanger millions of lives globally, but the first half of 2020 witnessed an extraordinary decline in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—higher than during the 2008 financial crisis, the 1979 oil crisis, or even World War II.

Empty streets in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the lockdown. Image Credit: K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash.

An international group of scientists has discovered that in the first six months of 2020, 8.8% less CO2 was released compared to the same period in 2019—a total reduction of 1,551 million tons.

The pioneering research not only provides an extremely precise look at COVID-19’s effect on worldwide energy consumption than earlier analyses. It also proposes what crucial steps can be implemented to stabilize the global climate in the wake of the pandemic.

What makes our study unique is the analysis of meticulously collected near-real-time data. By looking at the daily figures compiled by the Carbon Monitor research initiative we were able to get a much faster and more accurate overview, including timelines that show how emissions decreases have corresponded to lockdown measures in each country.

Zhu Liu, Study Lead Author, Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University

Liu continued, “In April, at the height of the first wave of Corona infections, when most major countries shut down their public life and parts of their economy, emissions even declined by 16.9%. Overall, the various outbreaks resulted in emission drops that we normally see only on a short-term basis on holidays such as Christmas or the Chinese Spring Festival.”

An In-Depth Look at Different Economic Sectors

Published in the recent issue of Nature Communications, the research reveals which parts of the worldwide economy were most affected.

The greatest reduction of emissions was observed in the ground transportation sector. Largely because of working from home restrictions, transport CO2 emissions decreased by 40% worldwide. In contrast, the power and industry sectors contributed less to the decline, with −22% and −17%, respectively, as did the aviation and shipping sectors.

Daniel Kammen, Professor and Chair of Energy and Resources Group and Professor in Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley

He added, “Surprisingly, even the residential sector saw a small emissions drop of 3%: largely because of an abnormally warm winter in the northern hemisphere, heating energy consumption decreased with most people staying at home all day during lockdown periods.”

The team created this detailed and multidimensional picture by making their estimates based on the broadest collection of data possible: exact, hourly datasets of electricity power generation in 31 countries, daily international passenger flights, daily vehicle traffic in over 400 cities globally, monthly production data for industry in 62 countries, as well as fuel consumption data for compiling emissions in over 200 countries.

“We need structural and transformational changes”

The team also identified robust rebound effects. Apart from a continuing drop in emissions from the transportation field, by July 2020, as soon as lockdown measures were removed, most economies recommenced their normal levels of CO2 emission. However, even if they were restricted to historically low levels, this would have a rather minute effect on the long-time CO2 concentration in the air.

Therefore, the researchers emphasize that the only effective strategy to stabilize the climate is a comprehensive overhaul of the industry and the commercial sector.

While the CO2 drop is unprecedented, decreases of human activities cannot be the answer. Instead we need structural and transformational changes in our energy production and consumption systems. Individual behavior is certainly important, but what we really need to focus on is reducing the carbon intensity of our global economy.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Study Co-Author and Founding Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Journal Reference:

Liu, Z., et al. (2020) Near-real-time monitoring of global CO2 emissions reveals the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature Communications.


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