How the Pandemic Has Reduced Emissions

Hollie Hazlett discusses whether the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced global carbon emissions and if these changes will be sustainable lockdown.

When news first broke in 2019 from Wuhan, China about a new highly contagious, deadly virus outbreak, no one anticipated the extent of world-wide disruption that followed. Globally there have been months of isolation, national lockdowns, unprecedented pressure on health systems, and an estimated death toll that has now breached 2 million people. Day to day lives were changed for the foreseeable future. “Hands, face, space” became a motto to live by. We continue to be told to stay apart and stay home.

Governments in countries across the world imposed national lockdowns, China on the 23rd January 2020, Italy on the 9th of March and the UK’s first (of many) national lockdown began on the 23rd March 2020. This meant the closure of schools, colleges and universities, working from home and furlough for periods of several months. The common denominator of all these side effects was people were staying home and not traveling. Fairly quickly images began to emerge, like the ones below from China, demonstrating the impact this sudden “stationary” lifestyle was having.

Image credits: Jonathan M Moch / Harvard SEA’s

Data from China revealed a 25% reduction in carbon emissions for a four-week period commencing February 3rd 2020; that is equivalent to 200 million tonnes of CO2 providing physical evidence of the visual impacts lockdown was having. Naturally, questions began to arise as to whether such lockdowns could assist in reducing global emissions.

Published on 11th December 2020, the Global Carbon Budget details global carbon emissions for 2020. Furthering from the 4-week period of emissions reduction in China, trends reveal an unexpected 6.7% reduction in total carbon emissions in 2020 from 2019 (36.4 ± 2 GtCO2 to projected 34.1 ± 2 GtCO2). This is the most significant reduction in carbon emissions since the baseline of 1990.

Image credits: Global Carbon Project

The surface transport sector saw the biggest reduction in emissions across 2020, with only residential emissions increasing above previous rates from 2019.  Most significantly emissions from road transport saw a reduction of about 16%. The only global change of circumstance that could be responsible for such drastic changes is coronavirus – but will this trend continue?

Image credits: Global Carbon Project

As countries continue to feel the strain of the coronavirus, it is likely that many of us will have to continue to remain home for the majority of the time. There will continue to be a reduction in travelling and so hypothetically a continued reduction in emissions. Exceptions may include countries such as the US and the UK who have widespread access to the coronavirus vaccine. As this is rolled out transmission rates are predicted to decrease. However, it takes time to make and distribute a vaccine so it is likely that emission levels will continue to remain low in 2021.

Whilst widespread national lockdowns and restricted transport is proving to be effective in reducing carbon emissions it is not sustainable. Life will eventually have to go back to normal, transport increase, and consequently so will fossil fuel consumption. The most proactive effort governments can take is to accelerate their emissions reduction strategies in a sustainable manner. COVID-19 has created an opportunity to re-shape the way in which society functions, and the introduction of low-, neutral-, or zero- carbon technologies. In the UK, this comes in the time of Brexit where there is new opportunity to create revolutionary law and legislation around carbon emissions.

It is clear that COVID-19 has positively impacted global carbon emissions and aided their reduction – the good news from 2020 we all needed. The challenge now is to take advantage and use it as a platform to accelerate long-term solutions to a zero-carbon future.

About the Author: Hollie Hazlett, 20, is a 2nd Year Environmental Geography student at the University of York.

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