Significant CO2 drop: COVID-19’s gigantic effect on global emissions

As the ongoing Corona pandemic continues, the first half of 2020 saw an unprecedented decline in CO2 emissions, much better than the financial crisis of 2008, the oil crisis of 1979, or even World War II.

An international team of analysts have found that in the first six months of 2020, 8.8% less carbon dioxide was emitted as compared with the same time in 2019(which means a total decrease of 1,551 million tonnes). This study not only portrays COVID-19’s impact on global energy consumption than previous analysis, but also suggests what fundamental steps could be taken to stabilise the global climate in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Lead author Zhu Liu from the Department of Earth System Science at Tsinghua University in Beijing explains “What makes our study unique is the analysis of meticulously collected near-real-time data”

He further mentioned “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. 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 per cent. 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.”

Further stats & research estimates on CO2 emissions

Daniel Kammen, professor and chair of the Energy and Resources Group and also a professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of Berkeley further says “The greatest reduction of emissions was observed in the ground transportation sector”

Significant CO2 drop: COVID-19's gigantic effect on global emissions

“Largely because of working from home restrictions, transport CO2 emissions decreased by 40 per cent worldwide. In contrast, the power and industry sectors contributed less to the decline, with -22 per cent and -17 per cent, respectively, as did the aviation and shipping sectors. Surprisingly, even the residential sector saw a small emission drop of 3 per cent: 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 researchers based their estimates on a wide array of data that includes precise, hourly datasets of electric power production in 31 countries, daily vehicle traffic in more than 400 cities worldwide, daily global passenger flights, monthly production data for industry in 62 countries as well as fuel consumption data for building emission in more than 200 countries.

Researchers also found strong rebound effects, along with the exception of a continuing decrease of emissions stemming from the transportation sector by July 2020, as soon as the lockdown were lifted, most economies resumed their usual levels of emitting CO2.

Significant CO2 drop: COVID-19's gigantic effect on global emissions

But even if they remained at their historically low levels, this would have a minuscule effect on the long-term CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Thus, the authors stress that the only valid strategy to stabilise the climate is a complete overhaul of the industry and commerce sector.

“While decline in CO2 is unprecedented, decreases of human activities cannot be the answer,” says Co-Author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “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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