How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Impacted Carbon Emissions & Energy Demands

How COVID-19 Impacts Carbon Emissions & Energy Demands

A Whole New World

If you’re like me, you’ve been stuck at home for numerous lockdowns. Ontario has entered its third province-wide lockdown until at least February 11, 2021. An optimistic environmentalist may look at the ongoing lockdowns and think, “On the bright side, our carbon emissions might go down, right?” I thought the same thing before conducting my research. 

Well, it turns out there’s more to it! This topic is actually generating a great deal of debate among scientists. Some say that the change in carbon emissions due to lockdowns can’t really be distinguished from the natural variation of the carbon cycle. Others say that the pandemic has been a driving force for changing emission levels.

One proven fact is that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered energy demands across the globe. Energy demands concern the consumption of amenities such as electricity, fossil fuels, wind, and solar energy. For the sake of this article, I wanted to focus on the most prominent sources of greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Namely the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transportation.

We are facing so many looming threats, be it from Covid, the corresponding economic recession, climate change, or the collapse of our biodiversity.
Click the image to learn more about what a biodiversity collapse means. [Image: Graeme MacKay/Mackay Cartoons].

Why Carbon Emissions Matter

Understanding carbon emissions is vital for better comprehending global climate change. Once the COVID-19 pandemic is eventually resolved (whether in a few months or even years), climate change will still be a threat. Regrettably, we’re not really in a position to ignore one crisis over another. We need to somehow manage both simultaneously.

“Keeping track of evolving CO2 emissions can help inform government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid locking future emissions trajectories in carbon-intensive pathways.”

Corinne Le Quéré et al. (2020)

Humans are perpetuating climate change by contributing obscene amounts of carbon emissions to our atmosphere.
Renewable energy must start to replace the burning of fossil fuels if we hope to change the trajectory of our carbon emissions. [Photo by Pixabay/Pexels].

Have There Been Notable Changes In Carbon Emissions?

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic back in March, there have been some considerable shifts in our daily lives. For instance, many out there are no longer commuting to work. Travel isn’t recommended, and is outright prohibited to many destinations. So it makes sense that surface transportation and aviation emissions have declined the most.

Note the stark drops in surface transport and aviation emissions. [Image: Le Quéré et al. (2020)/].

A Closer Look

Although this drop seems like it would have positive environmental implications, with the return to normal life comes the return of “normal” consumption and emission patterns. Unfortunately, there’s also another obstacle to our current understanding.

We don’t yet have real-time carbon emission monitoring systems in place. While global atmospheric carbon is measured regularly (414 PPM), our emissions is another matter. As of now, CO2 levels are only reported annually.

One way to overcome this is to look at countries that experienced lockdown early on such as China. Their emissions saw a significant drop in February and March. Stringent lockdown protocols caused an estimated 1.7% decrease. However, the data also suggests that emissions have already rebounded and actually surpassed 2019 values.

Atmospheric CO2 at Muana Loa Observatory
The carbon cycle has always shown variation throughout the year. The upward trend, however, is not natural.

The Short Term Consequences

The most prominent short-term impact of the pandemic on the global climate is a temporary reduction of emissions. This, however, does not translate to a decrease in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, has a lifespan of hundreds of years. We’re going to need to do a lot more to make a real dent in those emissions and help accelerate the carbon cleanup.

Paris showed a dramatic change in air quality following the Covid-19 lockdowns.
The air quality of Paris, France: November 2019 versus March 2020. [Image/ CNN].

Something In The Air

On the bright side, we’ve seen improved air quality in a number of locked-down areas. Cities such as Paris, Los Angeles, and New Delhi have all seen up to 60% reduction in air pollution compared to 2019 levels for the same time periods.

It’s important to note that air pollution returned to pre-lockdown levels shortly after restrictions were lifted. If anything, I hope this will act as a wake-up call for local decision makers. It illustrates that simply reducing road congestion could already generate significant benefits for both human health and the environment.

Janelle Monae, "We are the future"
It’s up to us to advocate for the future we want.

What About The Long Term?

Ultimately, any drop in carbon emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic will not have any lasting positive effect on global climate change.

“Global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 will drop by 4 percent to 7 percent in 2020 because of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, but that decline won’t stop the continued overall buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Bob Berwyn

People Protesting for Climate Action, "Planet Over Profit."
Balancing economic and environmental prosperity is tricky, but totally possible if we chose to shift our mindset. [Photo by Markus Spiske/Pexels].

If You Build It

Financially speaking, countries may now have less money in the budget for climate resilience and renewable energy. That’s after funding all those much-needed COVID recovery programs. Although we are beginning to use more renewable sources of energy (yay!), they’re not yet replacing fossil fuels (see the 2020 IEA Renewable Energy Report). This substitution is crucial.

As concerning as this may be, this unprecedented challenge has illuminated some opportunities for change. Although banning cars and shutting down society is not a viable climate change solution, researchers are working on ways to provide long term healthier air conditions.

For those who enjoy actually working from home, it’s likely that this will become more of a standard practice. Saving on gas & the commute, while protecting the environment? Sounds like a win-win to me!

Electric vehicles (EVs) can totally help reduce the carbon emissions generated by all our surface transportion.
Carbon emissions caused by surface transportation can be reduced with electric vehicles. [Photo by Mike/Pexels].

Action Moving Forward

In other positive news, Germany has recently committed €54 billion towards the sustainable transition. That includes public transportation, electric vehicles, and renewable energy. Pursuing further research and development of in other clean energy options, such as renewables and even green hydrogen, should also help them become more affordable.

Indeed, we need to be thinking about this in a number of ways. Coming out of a global pandemic requires a re-evaluation of priorities. Ideally, our governments would take this as a learning experience in all aspects of life.

Environmentally, their post-crisis actions will help determine the global emissions pathway for the future. The call to pursue a sustainable recovery and green new deals is stronger than ever! We now have a really good chance at reworking our social norms and moving beyond our over-consumptive lifestyles.

Developing renewable energy sources is an effective means of reducing carbon emissions.
We can reduce carbon emissions by moving away from fossil fuels and making the leap towards renewable energy. [Photo by Pixabay/ Pexels].

The Need For Change

Even if our populations sit in lockdown, our impact on the environment doesn’t lessen. The problem is that our entire economy and societal energy demands that we produce huge amounts of carbon. It’s just one more example of why large-scale systemic change is needed.

Researching the impacts of COVID-19 on global carbon emissions has only reiterated what I’ve already discovered on my own sustainability journey. That the pressure to ‘stop climate change’ is largely misplaced on individuals rather than on large corporations. Despite this, there are a few things you can do from home to help:

Editing by Marc-Antoni Tarondo.


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