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  • Isabelle Fonseca

COVID-19 Lockdown and Carbon Emissions

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

As early as 1896, scientists were predicting that carbon emissions could substantially alter the Earth’s temperature through the greenhouse effect. Yet, the world continues to suffer from the greenhouse gas effect, a phenomenon that traps gasses like carbon dioxide within the atmosphere. In the last decades there have been very few attempts to combat rising sea levels, an increase in natural disasters, melting glaciers, and other manifestations of global warming. One of these attempts was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was adopted by the United Nations to enhance energy efficiency, promote sustainable agriculture, protect natural carbon sinks such as forests, and overall, minimize the adverse effects of climate change.

However, the treaty was ultimately ineffective in regulating climate change as it failed to create a universal and measurable standard for cutting emissions and holding individual governments accountable. More recent attempts to curtail carbon emissions policy action have included the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, a multilateral treaty committing all parties to the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degrees celsius above pre industrial levels. Still, man-made carbon dioxide is the number one greenhouse gas emitted, making citizens and their respective governments the number one reason for climate change. In 2019, humans accounted for 80% of the overall emissions. Since 1970, carbon emissions have increased by 90% and continue to rise yearly, despite attempts to limit the rising global temperature to under 1.5° C.

Photo Courtesy: Lucas Jackson/Reueters

The global pandemic could offset this upward trend in an unpredicted way. As a result of the lockdowns and restrictions on global travel, the number of people commuting to and from work decreased, and the demand for major energy sources used for transportation fell. Carbon emissions on average plummeted by -17% compared to data collected in 2019. In global surface transport emissions, there was a whopping -34% reduction.

China was the first country to go into lockdown and is the country with the highest carbon emissions per year. After going on lockdown, there was a 12% decline in carbon emissions in February 2020 compared to February 2019. These reductions led to a brief but still significant period of clearer skies in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai that are typically engulfed by thick smog. By contrast, the United States, a country with the second-highest carbon emissions, did not see this steady decline in carbon emissions as early on in the pandemic. This discrepancy can be attributed to its later implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. It did, however, record an annual emissions decline of more than 10%, which amounts to about 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, commonly abbreviated as MtCO2. This decrease, which amounted to about a 10% drop in carbon emissions, marked a step towards the goal to prevent a 1.5° C or more rise in global temperature by 2050.

India saw a 7% decline in total carbon emissions across the country, which is a surprising deviation from previous trends. Between 2015 and 2019, India’s CO2 emissions had an average yearly growth of 3.3%. Yet, in April 2020, there was a 40% decline in emissions from the previous year.

This honeymoon period of carbon reduction could only last so long. As political appetite for lockdown ultimately withered, restrictions were steadily curtailed. China’s emissions began to increase to 0.8% , a number above its 2019 levels. Similar trends were observed in the United States and India. Despite lower-than-average CO2 emissions with the onset of the pandemic, 2020 was recorded as the warmest year in recorded history alongside 2016. It seemed that the short respite from increasing emissions was not enough to have a significant effect on the globe’s average temperature

Trying to make sense of this temporary decline Corinne Le Quéré, a leading research professor at UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, stated that “all elements are not yet in place for sustained decreases in global emission, and emissions are slowly edging back to 2019 levels.” She did, however, urge politicians to use the pandemic as an opportunity for encouraging constituents to invest in environmentally friendly methods of transportation, like walking and public transportation. She also expressed that the pandemic and its driving need for economic mobility could be used to advance the deployment of electric vehicles.

The climate trends from the 2020 lockdown may have provided world leaders with renewed energy and ideas for combating climate change. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stressed that “this is a critical year for climate action.” Such an interpretation was repeated later by U.S. President Joe Biden at the UN General Assembly opening ceremony, where he proclaimed that 2021 would be a pivotal year in changing the course of climate change. Major world leaders and scientists alike have stressed the importance of continuing a pandemic-like decline in carbon emissions. They argue that the pandemic and its causal relationship with decline in carbon emissions provides a perfect opportunity for global leaders to jumpstart their respective economies while shifting to a cleaner and more sustainable future. It should be noted that although the United Nations has stated that “COVID-19 recovery plans offer the opportunity to build back greener and cleaner,” they have not yet released a comprehensive report or plan to articulate how this opportunity will be seized.

Still, the 2020 lockdowns could have a silver lining; they demonstrated that there are tangible ways to reduce emissions, even if the trends in 2020 were short-lived. The pandemic lockdowns provided leaders and environmentalists alike with critical examples of how countries could rapidly reduce their carbon footprints. Now it's just a matter of turning those examples into action.

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