Climate indicators in the COVID-19 season

EarthzineCovid-19, Original

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions over 1900-2020 in Gigatons (Gt)

We are living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded [1]. Despite the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not forget the "deeper environmental emergency" facing the planet.

May 26, 2020

by Manish Muhuri

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases inches towards 6.6 million [2], we are no closer to developing an immediate solution. The toll taken by the virus is both immediate and dreadful; the damage to spheres caused beyond healthcare would take eons to recover. Some experts have labeled this pandemic 'the biggest challenge the world has faced since the Second World War' [3, 4].

Meanwhile, as the countries all over clamber to contain the spread of COVID-19, many economic activities have ground to a halt, leading to marked reductions in air pollution. Multiple sources indicate we are now living through an unrivalled drop in carbon output, offering a silver lining in an otherwise depressing story [5, 6].

Due to an unprecedented decline in the use of fossil fuels, global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to plunge nearly 8% this year, somewhere between 2 and 3 billion tonnes of CO2 - the largest drop ever recorded. Daily global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ standard deviation) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels [6]. No war, no recession and no previous pandemic in the last 70 years have had such a dramatic impact on emissions of CO2 as Covid-19 has in a few short months. Traffic restrictions accounted for 43% of the emissions drop, and reduced power and industrial production also accounted for another 43% [6].

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Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions over 1900-2020 in Gigatons (Gt)

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions over 1900-2020 in Gigatons (Gt). Image Source – Global energy review, International Energy Agency (IEA), All Rights reserved [5]

However, this drop might not be enough good news for long term efforts to tackle climate change. This is because the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming our planet won't stabilize until the world reaches a net-zero emission stage. In spite of record low emissions, the planet was heating up to a near-record high for April, just 0.04o Fahrenheit cooler than April 2016 [7]. Moreover, emissions might just surge again after the pandemic returning to their pre-crisis trajectory. If the 2009 post economic recession period can be used as a reference, there was a sharp rise of almost 6% in carbon emissions the very next year. 2020 might also end up amongst the top three warmest years on record, according to projections [8]. Thus, this short-term decline in emissions resulting from the pandemic is only a blip in the big picture of climate change.

To keep the world on track to stay under the 1.5oC target proposed by the Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) for this century [9, 10], the world needs similar cuts for the foreseeable future to keep this target in view. Such emissions reductions will not happen via lockdowns and restrictions, but by climate policies that lead to the deployment of clean technologies and reductions in demand for energy. China has indicated that it will relax environmental supervision of companies in order to encourage industrial output [11]. In late March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not penalize power plants, factories and other facilities for failing to comply with routine air and water pollution monitoring and reporting obligations if COVID-19 was the cause of the non-compliance [12]. This is particularly baffling since conditions that place someone at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include asthma, diabetes and cancer – conditions often caused by air and water pollution.

Change in global daily fossil carbon dioxide emissions due to different sources

Change in global daily fossil carbon dioxide emissions due to different sources. Image Source - Corinne Le Quéré et al, Nature Climate Change [6]

Tackling climate change must be woven into the solution to the COVID-19 economic crisis. This temporary dip should not distract us in incorporating structural and fundamental changes in infrastructure, energy, land use and industrial systems. As we strive to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus spread, there is an urgent requirement to flatten the carbon emissions curve as well. Otherwise, people will get back to their routines such as using individual cars, maybe even more so than pre-pandemic times, because they want to avoid buses or trains, and this could lead to emissions becoming higher than before. A large fraction of the currently experienced drop in emissions is due to road transport, which goes to say how much it can help us to curb emissions if we move mobility to a low carbon path.

Major uncertainties surround the economic outlook, including the trajectory of the pandemic, the effects and duration of virus containment measures, reopening strategies and the shape and speed of recovery as the pandemic recedes. While administrations all around the globe scramble to dig their respective economies out of impending crises, it is worth remembering that the planet's unfolding environmental crisis is an even deeper emergency. Globally, eight million people die annually because of air pollution-related diseases [13]. Biodiversity is in steep decline. Climate disruption is approaching a point of no return. We must act decisively, not only to protect human beings from the coronavirus, but also to protect our planet and its life-forms (including humans) from the existential threat of climate disruption.



Image Source: The cover image was obtained from – Global energy review, International Energy Agency (IEA), All Rights reserved [5]

About the Author: Manish finished his doctorate from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in RNA biology while working on molecular mechanisms of brain development in mice. Thereafter, he worked as a Research Fellow in Institute of Medical Biology, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) with the Translational Control in Development and Disease group. Currently, he is working as a postdoctoral associate at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, USA. His research areas include developing gene therapies for rare diseases and cancers and vaccines (including SARS-CoV-2) using viral vectors. Manish is a zero-carbon advocate and passionate about science communication. He is a music lover and loves playing the sitar. An ardent follower of Manchester United and Formula One, he likes to spend his time reading, watching movies and cooking.