What does Covid mean for carbon emissions?


High carbon emissions have plagued our planet ever since the industrial revolution began nearly 300 years ago. Global carbon emissions remained sky high in 2019, landing at a total of 33 gigatonnes. Could a global pandemic be the answer to skyrocketing carbon emissions?

Covid-19: A blessing in disguise?

It has been a hectic year. Covid-19 has run rampant through entire continents, devastated families, overwhelmed hospitals and brought the global economy to a grinding halt. The virus has manifested itself as the ultimate ice-breaker and seems to creep its way into the centre of almost every conversation.

Despite the struggles brought about by the virus, there was underlying hope that there might be a silver lining after all – with the majority of the world shut down, experts estimated a 7% fall in carbon emissions. World leaders and the general public speculated that global emissions would decrease exponentially as we navigated through the pandemic. Nobody was going anywhere, public transport was restricted, shops and businesses were closed, so surely emissions were slashed?

How did the pandemic affect carbon emissions?

Overall, the first half of April 2020 saw the most comprehensive and strict lockdown procedures worldwide, with daily carbon emissions down 17% compared to 2019’s figures. A total, global fall of 6.4% was recorded at the height of the pandemic, largely down to China’s lockdown. The manufacturing haven of the world shut down the majority of its operations, and saw a 25% reduction in carbon emissions over a 4-week period, however emissions recovered exponentially over a 7-week period. 

Similarly, the United States reported a drop of 650 million tonnes in carbon emissions, nearly 25% of global reductions. However, like China, this was nothing more than a blip, as manufacturing and general industrial activity resumed soon after the initial shutdown, with economic and industrial activities soon getting back into their stride.

India experienced similar disruption, with a decline in emissions of roughly 200 million tonnes.

So while economic giants did see sharp falls in carbon emissions, they were short-lived, they came at the price of harsh restrictions and nationwide lockdowns, and rebounds to original levels are inevitable. 

What about this year?

According to the executive director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, “the increase in emissions this year is set to be the second biggest in history, second only to the rebound from the financial crisis”. Scientists branded the brief lowering of carbon emissions in 2019 as “a drop in the ocean”, and 2021 levels are expected to return to and surpass 2019 numbers. 

The future

2019 (pre-covid) was a sign that clean energy transitions were picking up pace. Global emissions sourced directly from coal use were down 1.3% from 2018 (200 million tonnes). Trends suggested that power sector emissions were on the decline, with advanced economies reporting a fall of 1.2%. 

In the case of Covid-19, however, the brief decline in carbon emissions was not due to structural change, but a result of forced restrictions brought about by the virus. A study documented by the BBC concluded that by 2030, Covid-19 will have reduced global temperatures by just 0.01C. With economies recovering and manufacturers racing to resume production, it is no surprise that experts are almost unphased by the brief reduction in carbon emissions. The race is on to resume normality.

Global pandemics are not the solution to ever-increasing carbon emissions, specific and measurable climate action is. There is hope that the Climate Pledge of 2020, with signatures from over 105 of the top corporations worldwide, will mobilise strategies to lower emissions without such drastic consequences like worldwide lockdowns or disruptions to daily service. Efforts are being made to reach a state of carbon neutrality by 2050, where carbon emissions are balanced by carbon offsetting (the removal of atmospheric CO2). 

Make sure to keep up with the discussion over at our socials (links), and check out our blog post about how CO2 levels affect your personal health – you may just re-evaluate your own carbon footprint!