Lockdowns lead to drastic fall in carbon emissions, but the effect could be temporary

Energy

A gull flies over a deserted Millennium Bridge near to St Paul’s Cathedral in London on April 13, 2020.

Glyn Kirk | AFP | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns have resulted in a significant fall in worldwide carbon emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The analysis was undertaken by scientists from around the world and led by Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), in the U.K.

The research, published Tuesday, found that compared to mean daily levels in 2019, daily emissions declined by 17% at the beginning of April, when confinement measures were at their peak. The fall in emissions is an estimate based on a combination of policy, activity and energy data.

The researchers estimated that the total fall in emissions around the world, from January until the end of April, was 1,048 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2). China experienced the biggest fall, with a drop of 242 MtCO2, while the U.S. saw a decline of 207 MtCO2. 

“Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions,” Le Quéré, who is professor of climate change science at UEA, said in a statement.

“These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems. The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come.”

The pandemic has seen some cities launch initiatives aimed at changing the way people travel, which could in turn have an impact on emissions.

Authorities in London, for example, are set to make some streets in the U.K. capital car-free zones. They have already widened sidewalks and introduced temporary cycle lanes in a bid to encourage people to move around on foot or by bike, and avoid public transport.

Some feel that systemic change is needed in order to move the planet to a more sustainable footing, however.

“This huge drop in carbon emissions is due to the global lockdown, but as the world emerges from this terrible pandemic avoiding catastrophic climate change must be at the top of the agenda,” Jenny Bates, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, said in a statement reacting to the study in Nature Climate Change.

“We must make sure that our recent experience of better air quality, lower carbon emissions and simple things like hearing birdsong are prioritised post-lockdown by building the next normal around active travel, access to nature, and ending our reliance on fossil fuels,” Bates added.

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