Global emissions dropped ‘shocking’ 17% during lockdown

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Global carbon dioxide emissions plunged by 17% in early April, as much of the world shut down to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a report released today.

The assessment by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) represents the most comprehensive look to date at the emissions impact of the global pandemic. Researchers studied emissions from 69 countries representing 97% of global CO2 emissions in an effort to get a picture of the virus’s effect on greenhouse gas levels. They compared daily CO2 output over the first four months of 2020 to the same days in 2019.

The study, released today in Nature Climate Change, identified unprecedented drops in carbon dioxide levels associated with the economic lockdowns imposed by governments around the world. China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, saw CO2 levels plunge by nearly a quarter over a seven-day period in February compared with the same time in 2019. In the United States, emissions were down a staggering 30% throughout much of April. European emissions reductions peaked in late March and early April, when CO2 declines crested around 27%.

Global emissions reductions peaked on April 7, when almost 90% of the world was subject to some level of confinement. The total emissions decline in 2020 will depend in large part on when the world exits confinement. The study predicted emissions will fall 4% of 2019 levels if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June. That number could reach as high as 7% if some level of lockdown persists through the end of the year.

Researchers said the figures illustrated the challenge the world faces in achieving the emissions reductions scientists say are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The United Nations has said the world will need annual reductions of 7.6% over the next decade if it is to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom said the world’s future emissions trajectory hinges on governments’ response to the crisis.

“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,” Le Quéré said in a statement. “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.”

Indeed, the study found much of the reduction in global emissions was driven by steep falloffs in surface transportation and aviation. Transport accounted for 43% in the decrease of global emissions at the peak of confinement. Aviation, meanwhile, was responsible for 10% of the emissions decline. Industrial and power plant emissions were down 19% and 7.4%, respectively.

Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor and the chairman of the Global Carbon Project, called the emissions reductions in the United States shocking. America has averaged annual emissions reductions of 0.9% since 2005.

“For a couple of weeks in April, U.S. emissions dropped by a third. That’s a massive decrease,” Jackson said. “It’s unsustainable, but it’s enormous nevertheless.”