Coronavirus pandemic caused historic drop in CO2 emissions around the world

POTSDAM, Germany — No matter where you are in the world, it’s likely you notice one thing every time you walk outside — it’s much quieter in the streets. COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way the world works and lives in 2020. While the toll on human life has been devastating, a report finds the global shutdown has had a historic impact on the environment. Researchers say the world saw an unprecedented drop in carbon dioxide emissions during the first half of 2020. The question, however, is did it make a permanent difference?

According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), lockdowns across the planet resulted in a decline in CO2 emissions that was larger than the financial crisis of 2008, the oil crisis of 1979, and even during World War II. An international team of researchers adds the first six months of 2020 saw an 8.8 percent drop in carbon dioxide emitted compared to 2019. This decrease amounts to 1,551 million tons of CO2 that didn’t enter the atmosphere during the pandemic.

“What makes our study unique is the analysis of meticulously collected near-real-time data” explains lead author Zhu Liu of Tsinghua University in a media release.

“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%. 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.”

Empty roads led to 40% decrease in CO2 emissions

The study finds some sectors contributed more to this pollution drop than others. Particularly, fewer people commuting to work and school during COVID-19 has caused one of the biggest drops in CO2.

“The greatest reduction of emissions was observed in the ground transportation sector,” explains UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kammen “Largely because of working from home restrictions, transport CO2 emissions decreased by 40% worldwide.”

Kammen adds the power and industry sectors actually saw increases in their CO2 emissions during 2020’s first half. Researchers expressed surprise at the fact that residential CO2 emissions dropped by three percent, even though more people have been home during quarantine. Much of this, the study finds, is due to an unusually warmer winter in Earth’s northern hemisphere. This allowed many people to use less energy heating their homes.

Did it make a real impact?

The study thanks its historic findings to real-time tracking of power production in 31 countries. Researchers also looked at data on vehicle traffic in over 400 cities, global air travel, industry production data in 62 nations, and fuel consumption in buildings within 200 countries.

While the first six months of 2020 produced a historic impact on the planet, the study finds CO2 levels are already bouncing back. By July, researchers say most global economies resumed their typical levels of CO2 production.

Even more deflating, study authors conclude this historic drop will have a very minor impact on long-term CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere.

“While the CO2 drop is unprecedented, decreases of human activities cannot be the answer,” says co-Author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber from PIK. “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.”

The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

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