Covid lockdown caused a record drop in CO2 emissions

Covid lockdown caused a record drop in CO2 emissions as global emissions drop by 7% in 2020, study finds

  • World’s emissions are 7% (2.4 billion tonnes) lower in 2020 than it was in 2019
  • The UK saw one of the biggest drops in emissions of any nation at 13 per cent  
  • US saw emissions are 12% down and the EU27 figure is 11% lower than 2019  

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused the single biggest annual drop in greenhouse gas emissions on record, according to new data. 

Lockdowns and travel restrictions due to Covid-19 saw the level of emissions plummet by 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020.

The global figure of emissions is believed to be around 34 gigatonnes, seven per cent down on 2019’s figure. One gigatonne is the same as 1,000,000,000 tonnes.

The UK saw one of the biggest drops in emissions of any nation at 13 per cent down compared to 2019, the analysis suggests.

This is due to major reductions in transport – the largest source of climate pollution for the country – and the implementation of two nationwide lockdowns.  

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused the single biggest annual drop in greenhouse gas emissions on record, according to new data (stock)

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), University of Exeter and the Global Carbon Project.

In December 2020, global emissions from road transport were still 10 per cent below 2019 levels and aviation pollution was 40 per cent lower than last year.

The US saw emissions drop by around 12 per cent and in the EU27 there was an 11 per cent drop, the research published in the journal Earth System Science Data showed.

But in China, where Covid-19 restrictions occurred and were removed earlier in the year and which came on top of rising emissions, the estimated reduction was just 1.7 per cent.

The global fall is much larger than any other drop in recent memory. The economic downturn in 2009 led to a 0.5 gigatonne (Gt).

Emissions are expected to rise again in 2021 and sustained cuts of 1-2 billion tonnes in annual carbon dioxide emissions are needed every year this decade to curb temperature rises, the researchers warn.

Professor Corinne Le Quere, from UEA, said: ‘All elements are not yet in place for sustained decreases in global emission, and emissions are slowly edging back to 2019 levels.

‘Government actions to stimulate the economy at the end of the Covid-19 pandemic can also help lower emissions and tackle climate change.’

In the UK, action on transport would help limit increase in emissions in the coming years, she said.

This graph shows the reduction in CO2 emissions throughout 2020 by sector. At the start of April, during the peak of the coronavirus first wave outside of China and when the most stringent restrictions were in place, ground transport CO2 emissions were more than 11 megatonnes (Mt) does compared to 2019

‘Stopping the rebound now would have to be done with encouraging walking and cycling and electric bikes if you want to do it quickly by 2021, and longer term, it’s about electric mobility,’ she said.

Lead researcher Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, of the University of Exeter, said: ‘We are in a unique position now, not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but because of pre-existing climate policies, new green deals and net zero commitments.

‘Countries responsible for 50-60 per cent of global emissions are committed to net zero, and there will be large economic stimuluses being produced.

‘All of this combined is a unique opportunity to actually tackle and break this long term emissions in carbon dioxide and therefore climate change.

‘There’s hope, but of course, action needs to be taken and followed,’ he said.

The research coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement which intends to keep global warming below 2°C of pre-industrial levels. 

A recent UN report found the drop in worldwide emissions in 2020 due to the lockdown has lowered 2050 temperature predictions by only 0.01 per cent.

Earth is still on pace to reach a catastrophic 3.2°C (6.6°F) of warming by 2100, the report warns, because the brief dip in greenhouse gas emissions will not significantly influence long-term forecasts.

Key findings of the Unep report  

A brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will make no significant difference to long-term climate change.

World is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century 

CO2 emissions could decrease by about 7 per cent in 2020 

Although 2020 emissions will be lower than in 2019 due to the COVID-19 crisis and associated responses, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, with the immediate reduction in emissions expected to have a negligible long-term impact on climate change

Domestic and international shipping and aviation currently account for around 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions and are projected to increase significantly

Emissions of the richest 1 per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent 

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