Daily carbon dioxide emissions are spiking again as economies roar back to life from pandemic lockdowns. Scientists worry that countries may miss their chance to reboot greener economies unless governments embrace long-lasting structural change.
Initially, emissions plummeted when governments implemented confinement measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Last month, a team of scientists released an estimate of daily carbon emissions from January through April. Global emissions decreased “massively,” said lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré, particularly in April, when the world reached its lowest daily emissions level in 15 years.
Two months later, emissions are rebounding towards pre-pandemic conditions as countries reopen. Some countries have introduced green recovery plans, while others, like the United States, are rolling back environmental protections.
Economic downturns often coincide with lower carbon dioxide emissions, but the effect disappears when economies bounce back and rely heavily on how governments implement stimulus plans. Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions dropped 1,4% in 2009 during the global financial crisis, then rebounded a whopping 5,1% in 2010 after aggressive government efforts stimulated national economies. Since then, emissions have increased by about 1% per year.
“The big question, the one that matters hugely for the direction of carbon emissions in the future, is what our world governments are going to do this time around,” Le Quéré said. “We need organised, structural change to tackle climate change.”
Daily carbon dioxide emissions tanked during coronavirus restrictions and are slowly increasing. You can see the small dip in global emissions from the financial crisis in 2009 and the swift rebound afterwards. Credit: Le Quéré et al., Nature Climate Change (2020); Global Carbon Project, CC BY 2.0
Fewer Vehicles, Less Carbon
Daily emissions as of 11 June were around 5% below pre-pandemic levels and “decreasing rapidly,” according to a technical report presented by the authors. The team has projected that annual emissions will be 4%–7% lower this year than last.
Surface transportation had the largest impact on emissions reductions during lockdowns. Surface transportation—including cars, buses, trucks and shipping—had the largest impact on emissions reductions during lockdowns. On the lowest emission day, 7 April, 43% of the drop came from fewer vehicles burning fuel. Other substantial decreases came from less energy use in power and industry.
By contrast, aviation had the largest relative anomaly of any sector: emissions fell by 60% and “the sector literally collapsed during the lockdown,” Le Quéré said. In the big picture, however, aviation accounts for roughly 3% of annual CO2 emissions, so the reduction was dwarfed by decreases in other sectors.
Emissions estimates come from a grab bag of online data. Carbon dioxide emissions are usually reported years after they occur, so creating a near-real-time estimate was novel. The team members pulled publicly available data on personal mobility, home energy use, traffic congestion, flight departures, steel production, and other proxies to re-create activity in six economic sectors using 577 individual time series. They then calculated the emissions from each and their relative drop during the restrictions. The scientists published their results in the journal Nature Climate Change in May.
“These folks dug up scraps of information…to produce rough estimates of emissions within two weeks of the time period of interest.” Gregg Marland, an adjunct research professor at Appalachian State University who was not involved with the study, called the analysis “creative.”
“It takes the United Nations two and a half years after a year ends to get questionnaires back from all countries on energy use, from which to calculate CO2 emissions. These folks dug up scraps of information from many sources to produce rough estimates of emissions within two weeks of the time period of interest.”
“Call me in 3 years and I will give you a good estimate of how close they came,” Marland added. “I am betting that they are close enough to be able to draw meaningful conclusions.”
On 7 April, emissions sank 17% globally, and surface transport was largely the cause. Industry and public sectors also decreased emissions by around 20% each, and power dropped by 7%. Residential energy rose by 3%. Emissions now are rising again. Credit: Le Quéré et al., Nature Climate Change (2020); Global Carbon Project, CC BY 2.0
A post pandemic world
“We still have the same roads, we have the same cars, we still have the same heating systems for the other sectors, and the same industries.
”Le Quéré believes the CO2 reductions are short-lived, as the recent data shows. “As soon as the confinement eases, then they come back up again,” she added. “Nothing has changed around us. We still have the same roads, we have the same cars, we still have the same heating systems for the other sectors, and the same industries.”
“The changes in emissions during confinement are not structural changes. They are forced behaviour changes—they are painful, they are brutal even,” Le Quéré said. Future reductions will rely on positive changes that boost quality of life and create jobs.
How? Le Quéré has some ideas: invest in green infrastructures, build cycle paths, insulate homes, install heat pumps, install renewable power and “electrify everything.” Cook vegetarian meals, train workers to renovate homes and plant more trees. She urges countries to stop investing in fossil fuel infrastructure: no new roads and no more coal plants “if we can help it.”
A University of Oxford working paper that surveyed 231 financial experts suggests that climate-friendly recovery packages make more economic sense, while others argue that prioritising environmental reforms will leave struggling companies behind.
Geeta Persad, an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Texas who was not involved with the emissions study, said that some new behaviours may stick around after the pandemic, like tele-commuting, but they’re not enough to offset carbon emissions.
“The results highlight that individual action alone is not sufficient to achieve climate mitigation goals,” Persad said. “Large-scale shifts in energy production are required.”
At times, some countries’ emissions dipped to about 30% below their pre-pandemic levels. The analysis looked at 69 countries, which are responsible for 97% of the world’s emissions. Credit: Le Quéré et al., Nature Climate Change (2020); Global Carbon Project, CC BY 2.0
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Headline photograph: Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/Contributor/AFP via Getty Imagess By Jenessa Duncombe