How COVID-19 Impacts Carbon Emissions & Energy Demands
Last Updated on January 20, 2021
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.
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.”
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)/Nature.com].
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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:
- Learn about provincial and federal green deals and climate strategies.
- Write your local MP to increase climate advocacy (templates here, find your MP here).
- Check out some of Sustainably Motivated’s past blog posts like “Does Fossil Fuel Divestment Really Work?” and “The Daily Commute.”
Editing by Marc-Antoni Tarondo.