Carbon emissions are falling sharply due to coronavirus. But not for long.

CO2 emissions are crashing as the world winds down, but experts say the drop won’t last if governments don’t start moving to cleaner energy.

Monday, 6 April 2020,
By Madeleine Stone
Photograph by David McNew, Getty Images

It is becoming clearer every day that the scale of the societal disruption caused by the novel coronavirus is like nothing most people on Earth have ever witnessed. One stark indicator of the pandemic’s far-reaching impact is its effect on fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. If preliminary data from some of the world’s biggest economies is any indicator, emissions are in for a sharp, if temporary, decline.

In China, carbon emissions were down an estimated 18 percent between early February and mid-March due to falls in coal consumption and industrial output, according to calculations first published by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief. That slowdown caused the world’s largest emitter to avoid some 250 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution—more than half the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, in the European Union, declining power demands and depressed manufacturing could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tonnes this year, a figure that represents about 9 percent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target, according to a preliminary forecast issued last week. And while data for the United States remains limited, experts expect that the coronavirus’s impacts will also ripple into the atmosphere as the economy continues to tailspin.

Clearly, this planetary breather is nothing to celebrate. And it could be a short-term blip: In China, emissions are already rebounding as the country restarts its factories. Absent strong governmental support for clean energy moving forward, experts say the pandemic won’t reverse the upward march of global carbon emissions, something that needs to happen immediately in order to help the world meet its climate targets.

“In terms of direct, physical impacts, yes we’re seeing a slowdown in some emissions,” says Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But of course, what really matters is cumulative emissions. If it’s short lived, it’s not really touching the tip of the iceberg.”

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China’s emissions fell, then started rebounding

As the early epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak and the first country to take dramatic measures to curb it, China is where the virus’s impact on carbon emissions first became visible. According to an earlier analysis published by CarbonBrief, emissions plunged some 25 percent in the first four weeks following Chinese New Year in late January as coal consumption and industrial activities like oil refining and cement making failed to rebound after the yearly holiday slowdown.

“The reason for that was very clear cut,” says Li Shuo, a senior policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia. “It was primarily because of the social economic disruption created by coronavirus.”

With the nation in lockdown, workers couldn’t get to factories and demand for energy, along with materials like steel and cement, remained low.

Steam rises from barges in the Yangtze River as China moves to reboot its stalled economy after the coronavirus ravaged the country.

Photograph by Qilai Shen, Bloomberg/Getty Images

But as the number of coronavirus cases has dropped, China has been working hard to restart its economy over the past month. By the end of March, energy usage, air pollution levels, and carbon emissions all seemed to be on the rebound, according to the Finland-based non-profit Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air’s Lauri Myllyvirta, who led the CarbonBrief analysis. That’s reflected in Myllyvirta’s latest figures, which show an emissions decline of just 18 percent over a seven-week period beginning in early February.

However, things are hardly back to normal. Anecdotally, Shuo says, Beijing’s service sector is still reeling, with many small businesses still closed. Meanwhile, some industries that are up and running again are facing a new challenge: lack of demand for their products overseas.

Shuo says it’s “unavoidable” that a future government stimulus package will include funding for some large-scale infrastructure projects, noting that the Chinese government prefers that strategy for counteracting economic declines in the service sector. That will likely cause a surge in carbon pollution, but it’s unclear whether it will fully counteract emissions declines related to the widespread economic distress.

“A month ago, most people thought this was a temporary dip in the emissions curve,” Shuo says. “If your time frame is ‘within this year,’ it is now very hard to tell, because globally and in China what is happening [to the economy] is more than a dip.”

Declines in Europe and the U.S.

As China’s economy continues its bumpy ascent, the economies of the U.S. and the EU, the world’s second and third largest carbon emitters, are tanking. Early data suggest major declines in power consumption and transit-related emissions as governments order people to stay home from work and non-essential industries to go into hibernation.

In Italy, which primarily uses natural gas to generate electricity, power demands fell steadily after the nation went into lockdown in early March. By the end of the month, demand was down 27 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to a March 30 research memo by consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. In France (primarily nuclear), which ordered a nationwide lockdown about a week after Italy, power demands are also plunging, while in the UK (natural gas), demand is starting to decline following last month's stay-at-home order.

Assuming the recent drop in Italy’s electricity consumption is a sign of what’s to come elsewhere, EU-wide power demands could fall 6.2 percent by the end of the year compared with a pandemic-free world, according to a forecast issued last week by Marcus Ferdinand, an analyst at Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, a consulting firm.

Combining this drop-off in Europe’s electricity appetite with projected sharp declines in industrial activity and air traffic, Ferdinand predicted that EU-wide emissions could fall by as much as 389 million metric tonnes this year. That’s more than the annual emissions of France and close to 9 percent of the EU’s targeted cumulative emissions for 2020.

Ferdinand cautions that this projection is based on “quite a few assumptions that need to be reassessed as we go along in this crisis.” But even if some of his assumptions about the economy, like a presumed 50 percent decline in industrial activity between April and June, prove pessimistic, the analysis doesn’t account for other key sources of carbon emissions, like ground transportation, which also appears to have fallen in hard-hit places like Italy. (Ferdinand’s analysis only looked at sectors of the economy whose emissions are governed by the EU’s cap-and-trade scheme.)

Transit-related emissions seem to be taking a nosedive in the U.S., too. According to Trevor Reed, an analyst at transportation research firm INRIX, U.S. passenger vehicle traffic was down by about 38 percent early last week. That translates to a similar, if not proportionally higher, reduction in carbon emissions since cars tend to operate more efficiently when there’s less congestion.

The carbon-intensive airline industry is also running on fumes, and Reed said that while long-haul truck traffic is holding up for now, he expects it to start declining as lockdowns persist, the recession deepens, and demand for non-essential goods drops.

Because transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and because passenger vehicles account for about 60 percent of these emissions, the short-term effect on the nation’s carbon footprint could be significant.

U.S. electricity demand is more of a wildcard. A March 31 analysis by Scotiabank found that while power demand was “collapsing” in the nation’s industrial and commercial sectors, for now it might be mitigated by rising residential demand, as millions of Americans stuck at home keep their lights, TVs, and power-hungry gaming consoles turned on for more hours of the day.

However, Adam Jordan, a power sector analyst at Genscape, a Wood Mackenzie subsidiary, cautions that this is a “fairly short-term view,” and said that lockdowns already appear to be “reducing congestion on the power grid” in most parts of the country, particularly on the coasts.

“In the long term, if this becomes a prolonged recession, I think overall demand will drop more than the residential load will pick up,” he says.

Long-term uncertainty

Taken together, the data suggest that the unprecedented global disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is likely causing a sharp, brief drop in carbon emissions across some of the world’s largest economies. While it’s difficult to say how soon those economies will rebound —it will depend, first and foremost, on the effectiveness of nations’ COVID-19 responses—on a global scale, the pandemic may have already left its mark on 2020’s carbon bill.

“My expectation is this will drag on for a few years in terms of stunted economic growth,” says Glen Peters, the research director at the Centre for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo, Norway.

Because economic growth remains tightly linked to carbon emissions on a global scale, Peters says that this could, potentially, lead to a worldwide emissions dip of one percent or more, comparable to what occurred during the 2009 financial crisis. However, if the economic downturn winds up being worse than is currently forecast, emissions could fall even further.

After the immediate health crisis and the ensuing economic winter is over, the world will face a choice. Emissions could come roaring back if nations lean heavily on old, dirty energy sources, like historically cheap oil, to rebuild their economies. The Trump administration’s decision to finalise its rollback of fuel economy standards this week, along with the recent economic stimulus bill’s $50-billion (£40 billion) bailout for the airline industry, suggests that for now, the U.S. government at least is not seeking to reduce fossil fuel use in its post-coronavirus future.

Under different leadership, that could change. As many experts have noted in recent weeks, strong governmental support for clean energy—through, say, renewable power and electric vehicle tax credits, investments in low-carbon infrastructure, and building efficiency—could tilt economies in a greener, more climate-friendly direction in the wake of the pandemic. And societal shifts that have occurred as a result of coronavirus lockdowns, like widespread telecommuting and holding conferences virtually, could give the world a little extra momentum.

“We have an opportunity to put, at the heart of stimulus packages, measures to speed up clean energy transitions and to boost energy resilience, so countries and industries come out of this crisis in a better position than they were before,” says Faith Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.