An international study of global carbon emissions found that daily emissions declined 17% between January and early April, compared to average levels in 2019, and could decline anywhere between 4.4% to 8% by the year’s end. That figure would mark the largest annual decrease in carbon emissions since World War II, researchers said.
The findings appeared today in the journal Nature Climate Change.
It’s not clear how long or severe the pandemic will be, which makes it difficult to predict how emissions will be affected long-term. And because the changes driving reduced emissions haven’t fundamentally changed the economy or the energy much of the world relies on, the declines are likely to be temporary.
Plus, 2020 is still on track to be one of the top five hottest years on record.
“I can’t celebrate a drop in emissions driven by unemployment and forced behavior,” said Rob Jackson, study co-author and professor in Stanford University’s Earth Science Systems department. “We’ve reduced emissions for the wrong reasons.”
Researchers created a lockdown index
The study centered on 69 countries, all 50 US states and 30 Chinese provinces, which account for 85% of the world population and 97% of all global carbon dioxide emissions.
Real-time carbon emissions data doesn’t exist, so researchers made their own algorithm. They created a confinement index based on the severity of pandemic policies – 0 represents no policy, and 3 represents a maximum lockdown with stay-at-home orders and a shuttered economy.
They used that lens when they examined daily data from six sectors of the economy that contribute to carbon emissions, including transportation, aviation, industry and commerce. With the confinement index indicating the severity of countries’ lockdowns and these data on drops in carbon-emitting activities, they could predict changes in daily emissions.
The carbon reductions were primarily driven by fewer people driving – surface transport activity levels dropped 50% by the end of April. The most significant decline in activity occurred in aviation – a 75% decrease – but it accounts for a smaller slice of global emissions, Jackson said.
By the end of April, carbon emissions declined by 1,048 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the researchers predicted – that’s roughly 2,312,649 pounds. The decline is largest in China, where the pandemic began, where emissions dropped 533,500-plus pounds. In the US, carbon emissions declined by 456,350-plus pounds. China and the US are the two largest carbon emitters globally.
What comes next
Whether these changes last – and whether they’ll make a difference in slowing climate change – depends on what the world does when the pandemic ends.
By the end of the year, emissions will have declined somewhere between 4.4% and 8%, the researchers predict. It’s the most significant decline in over a decade, but it’s the result of forced changes, not the restructuring of global economies and energy.
According to United Nations Environment projections, to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% every single year between now and 2030.