NEWS October 14, 2020: Peter Fairley of Grist reports on drop in GHG emissions due to COVID-19

The world has been trans­formed by the ongo­ing COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, and its impact on glob­al CO2 emis­sions is unprece­dent­ed. Accord­ing to a study led by the Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research, the drop in emis­sions dur­ing the first half of 2020 is larg­er than what was seen dur­ing the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008, the oil cri­sis in 1979, or even dur­ing World War II.

The researchers deter­mined that from Jan­u­ary to June, CO2 emis­sions were 8.8 per­cent low­er com­pared to the same time peri­od in 2019, with an over­all decrease of 1,551 mil­lion tons.

The study is pro­vid­ing a much more clear under­stand­ing of how COVID-19 has affect­ed glob­al ener­gy con­sump­tion com­pared to pre­vi­ous reports. The experts also high­light fun­da­men­tal steps that could be tak­en to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate after the pandemic.

Study lead author Zhu Liu is a researcher in the Depart­ment of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence at Tsinghua Uni­ver­si­ty in Bei­jing.

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,” explained Liu.

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.”

The analy­sis reveals which sec­tors of the glob­al econ­o­my have been hit the hard­est by the pan­dem­ic. Study co-author Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor in the Ener­gy and Resources Group and the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy at UC Berkeley.

The great­est reduc­tion of emis­sions was observed in the ground trans­porta­tion sec­tor,” said Pro­fes­sor Kam­men. “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.” “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 com­pre­hen­sive research was focused on a wide range of data, includ­ing hourly datasets of elec­tric­i­ty pow­er pro­duc­tion in 31 coun­tries, dai­ly vehi­cle traf­fic in more than 400 cities, dai­ly pas­sen­ger flights, and month­ly pro­duc­tion rates for indus­try in 62 countries.

The experts also found that, with the excep­tion of the trans­porta­tion indus­try, most economies resumed their usu­al lev­els of CO2 emis­sions by July after lock­down mea­sures were lifted.

Even if emis­sions remained low, how­ev­er, those improve­ments would do lit­tle to off­set the harm­ful lev­els of CO2 that have accu­mu­lat­ed in the atmos­phere in the long term. With this in mind, the researchers empha­size that the only valid strat­e­gy to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate is a com­plete over­haul of the indus­try and com­merce sector.

Study co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhu­ber is the found­ing direc­tor of the Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research.

While the CO2 drop is unprece­dent­ed, decreas­es of human activ­i­ties can­not be the answer,” said Schellnhu­ber. “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.”

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The study is pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and can be accessed here.

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