March through May 2020 saw many countries enforce lockdown measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic1. Due to decreased production and mobility, global emissions reduced over this period, but according to scientists, this reduction was not significant enough to address the impacts of climate change.
The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than 6 million people around the world with almost 400 thousand deaths2. The response from most countries has been to implement confinement measures to their population, with China taking the lead by imposing strict draconian lockdown measures in January, proving incredibly effective3. The measures of the UK and the US have been much milder4, resulting in New York becoming a significant Covid-19 cluster5.
Worldwide lockdowns have had several consequences directly associated with the drop in economic activity and consumer demand6. These consequences are not only socioeconomic— Covid-19 is also having an effect on climate change.
A drop in global energy demand but favourable to renewables
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported several changes in the first quarter of 2020 when comparing it to the same period of the year in 2019. The global energy demand is 3.8% lower this year than last year and could be decreasing even further to about 6% if global recovery is slow. All energy sources are not being affected in the same way, however: fossil fuels demand is decreasing more than nuclear energy, and the demand for renewables is increasing7. Covid-19 is helping accelerate environmentally friendly trends. In the US, energy generated from renewable sources surpassed coal for the first time in 130 years due to low operational costs.8.
Less air pollution
Due to decreased activity, one of the impacts of Covid-19 was the drop in air pollution. The European Space Agency has observed a decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels in usually most polluted countries – this is most visible in China, especially in the city of Wuhan.
As countries came to a standstill, industrial activity also declined. Gases usually emitted from car engines, power plants, and industrial facilities reduced, and as a result air quality improved9. However this improvement did not last long, with countries easing restrictions, emissions are now rising. This is likely to exacerbate health issues for people with existing respiratory problems such as asthma9.
Decreasing Greenhouse Gas emissions
Countries around the world have seen a sharp decline in the number of vehicles on roads for several months this year. This, coupled with decreased activity of the most polluting industries, resulted in an overall decrease in GHG emissions9.
The IEA records a 5% decrease and projects an 8% decrease by the end of the year7. On 7th April, CO2 emissions were as much as 17% lower than the same period in 201910! An 8% drop would bring GHG emissions back to 2010 numbers and would be twice larger than all reductions combined since WW27.
However, even though emissions decreased, carbon dioxide continues to build in the atmosphere. It is more important than ever to find climate change solutions.
Understanding the climate crisis
While these are all hard-to-grasp numbers, they can be understood better if considered in the context of the climate crisis. According to the UN Environment Programme Executive Director, to meet the 1.5ºC target advocated by the IPCC, there should be about a 7% decrease in global GHG emissions every single year for the whole decade11. This means that the unprecedented impacts of the coronavirus crisis on the environment, economy and society are not nearly significant enough to be more than one-year worth of the necessary carbon emissions decrease, despite its public health cost.
Additionally, the emissions reduction could still increase to pre-Covid levels after worldwide lockdowns are lifted and industries open again. Air pollution levels (NO2 and PM2.5) in China have already climbed back up because highly polluting industries are the fastest to recover. Europe is expected to follow the same trend12.
A shift in policymaking?
Rather than having a long-lasting effect on climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic is raising awareness on the need to reconstruct countries more sustainably. For instance, Boris Johnson has expressed his will to promote green technologies in the UK for a “green recovery”13.
Although both coronavirus and climate crises do not affect us in the same timescale, they are similar in that government policy and international efforts can significantly slow them down. The measures taken so far to react to the pandemic are not suited for the long-term; however, the IEA evaluates that government decisions guide 70% of the world’s spending on energy14. While showing the limits of individual action10, it simultaneously opens possibilities—just like after the 2008 financial crisis, where renewable energy investment increased dramatically15.
The pandemic may well result in more sustainable government policies as part of economic reconstruction.
1 Pleasance C. The world shuts down: Map shows how a third of the global population – 3BILLION people – are now under coronavirus lockdown. DailyMail. 2020 March 25.
2 COVID-19 Dashboard. In: Coronavirus Resource Center. Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. Updated 2020 Jun 3.
3 Graham-Harrison E, Kuo L. China’s coronavirus lockdown strategy: brutal but effective. The Guardian. 2020 Mar 19.
4 Costello A. To lift the lockdown, Britain should follow China’s example. The Guardian. 2020 Apr 10.
5 Chen A. When You’re From Wuhan, the U.S. Coronavirus Outbreak Is Déjà Vu. Slate. 2020 March 28.
6 Shretta R. The economic impact of Covid-19. University of Oxford: Coronavirus research. 2020 April 7.
7 (8) Global Energy and CO2 Emissions in 2020. In: Global Energy Review 2020. IEA. 2020 April.
8 Milman O. Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years. The Guardian. 2020 Jun 3.
9 (10) Watts J, Kommenda N. Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution. The Guardian. 2020 Mar 23.
10 (14) Roston E, Rathi A. Biggest Fall in Global Emissions Shows the Limits of Individual Action. Bloomberg Green. 2020 May 19.
11 Cut global emissions by 7.6 percent every year for next decade to meet 1.5°C Paris target – UN report. UN Environment Programme. 2019 Nov 26.
12 Carrington D, Kommenda N. Air pollution in China back to pre-Covid levels and Europe may follow. The Guardian. 2020 Jun 3.
13 Morales A. Boris Johnson Sees Green Recovery Essential to U.K. Economy. Bloomberg Green. 2020 June 3.
14 The pressure to make the post-covid rebound green. The Economist. 2020 May 1.
15 German B. The financial meltdown’s green aftermath. Axios. 2018 Sept 15.
16 Image: NASA Earth Observatory