Coronavirus lockdowns have caused a whopping 17% drop in global carbon emissions

Doyle Rice
  • This is the first analysis to measure the pandemic-driven global drop in carbon dioxide emissions.
  • 2020 is still on track to be one of the five hottest years on record.
  • In the U.S., California and Washington saw the biggest decline in emissions.

The coronavirus lockdowns have had an “extreme” effect on daily carbon emissions, causing a whopping 17% drop globally during peak confinement measures by early April – levels last seen in 2006.

However, it is unlikely to last, according to a new analysis by an international team of scientists, who said the brief pollution break will likely be “a drop in the ocean” when it comes to climate change.

This is the first analysis to measure the pandemic-driven global drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from January to April of this year.

Carbon dioxide, emitted from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and and coal, is the greenhouse gas that's most responsible for global warming. It stays in the atmosphere about a century before dissipating. 

While the impact of lockdown measures is likely to lead to the largest annual decrease in emissions since the end of World War II, 2020 is still on track to be one of the five hottest years on record, and the study notes that these reductions are no “silver lining.”

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The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Climate Change

Daily emissions decreased by 17%, or 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, globally during peak confinement measures in early April, dropping to levels last seen in 2006.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia in the U.K. led the analysis. She said “population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems."

“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," she said.

For a week in April, the United States cut its carbon dioxide levels by about one-third. China, the world’s biggest emitter of heat-trapping gases, sliced its carbon pollution by nearly a quarter in February. India and Europe cut emissions by 26% and 27% respectively.

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This annual drop is comparable to the amount of annual emission reductions needed year-on-year across decades to achieve the climate objectives of the U.N. Paris Agreement.

Study co-author Rob Jackson of Stanford University said: "The drop in emissions is substantial but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments. We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behavior."

Outside experts praised the study as the most comprehensive yet, saying it shows how much effort is needed to prevent dangerous levels of further global warming.

"That underscores a simple truth: Individual behavior alone … won’t get us there," said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn’t part of the study. "We need fundamental structural change."

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Some of the report's key findings include:

•    The estimated total change in emissions from the pandemic amounted to 1,048 million tonnes of carbon dioxide through the end of April. The largest decrease in emissions occurred in China, followed by the U.S., Europe and India.

•    In the U.S., California and Washington saw the biggest decline in emissions. 

•    Emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, accounted for almost half (43%) of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement on April 7.

•    Pollution levels are heading back up – and for the year will end up 4% to 7% lower than 2019 levels, depending on the duration of the lockdown and the extent of the recovery.

Contributing: The Associated Press