Daily Emissions Dropped by 17% During Lockdown

The quarantine measures imposed in countries around the world to contain the spread of coronavirus have had a “drastic” impact on daily carbon emissions, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. At the peak of lockdown, daily emissions fell by as much as 17% - or the equivalent of 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).
However, the authors of the study were quick to point out the changes are unlikely to last. Indeed, without concerted change to our daily habits and our urban infrastructure, we stand no chance of meeting the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Summit. The annual improvements in emissions recorded this year are indicative of what we must continue to do every year if we are to hold out any hope of staying under the ceiling of a 2°C rise in global temperatures.
A global study
The research was carried out collaboratively by a team of international scientists, who examined data gathered from 69 countries representative of 97% of CO2 emissions around the world. At the height of the pandemic response, there were some form of lockdown restrictions in place in nations responsible for 89% of total emissions worldwide.
Their findings revealed that carbon emissions fell by 17% in total, while the average reduction in individual countries was slightly higher at 26%. China saw the biggest drop-off, with a total of 242 million tonnes of fewer CO2 emissions compared to this time last year. The USA was next in line, recording a decrease of 207 million tonnes, while Europe (123 million tonnes) and India (98 million tonnes) were third and fourth, respectively.
The sector where the largest reduction in CO2 emissions was recorded was road transport, accounting for 43% of the decrease, while a further 43% was attributable to energy and industry put together, highlighting the huge effect that COVID-19 has had on exports and trade. The aviation sector came to almost a complete standstill, but was responsible for only 10% fewer emissions.
A long road ahead
The authors of the study estimate that lockdown measures will bring about a total reduction in emissions for 2020 of between 4% and 7%, depending on when national economies re-emerge and restrictions are lifted. Should normal service be resumed in this month, the impact is likely to be around 4% - but even if some restrictions remain in place until the end of the year, it is not projected to exceed 7%.
That statistic highlights that while the environmental implications of coronavirus do provide interesting food for thought, they also underline the scale of the challenge facing us. In order to achieve the objectives agreed upon in Paris in 2015, similar improvements will need to be made each and every year. That indicates that systemic change, rather than reactionary, short-term solutions, are required.
“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,” explained Professor Corinne le Quéré, lead author on the study. “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.”