Carbon emission data during pandemic lockdowns provides insights on challenges ahead

Carbon emissions saw a significant dip due to the global lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even this forced decline will be nowhere close to enough to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement

January 23, 2021 by Sandipan Talukdar

The global lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions. While there has been a steady rise in the level of carbon dioxide for decades, in the year 2020, it dipped to a level of 6.4% or 2.3 billion tonnes – a significant drop, equating approximately double of Japan’s yearly emissions – according to new data published in Nature.

However, this decrease is still far from meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement and thus raises concerns for the world. The decrease that could be observed in the year 2020 was in a way forced, as many countries that lead in terms of global emissions resorted to lockdowns. This occurred without substantial collective action focused towards curbing climate change and meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement.

In order to meet the goals of Paris Agreement signed in 2015 — preventing global warming from going beyond 1.5 degree Celsius more than pre-industrial levels — the UN Environment Programme estimated that the world needs to cut carbon emissions at a rate of 7.6% per year for at least a decade. However, the data for 2020 showed that even after massive worldwide lockdowns, the emission level did not decrease to what is needed immediately. This also emphasizes on the need for much more immediate action to at least achieve the goals laid down by the Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, the United States recorded a nearly 13% decrease in its emissions as a result of the lockdowns. Globally, the most affected sector was aviation, where emissions dipped to 48% in comparison to what was in 2019.

The new data, according to Nature, has been provided by Zhu Liu, who is an earth-system scientist at the Tsinghua University, Beijing. Liu co-leads the International Carbon Monitor Programme.

According to him, there will be a strong rebound in the emission levels after the pandemic, as the world reopens.

Zhu Liu’s team has published emission earlier as well. In October, Liu’s team reported in Nature about the emissions for the first half of 2020, wherein the researchers showed that there was an abrupt decrease in the emission level in the first half of the year which amounted to 8.8% in comparison to 2019. But, the new data, including emissions for the whole year, shows that the second half of 2020 witnessed a rebound.

Liu’s team also showed that there were discrepancies with respect to economic activities in various countries. China, the first country to introduce lockdowns to control the early wave of the pandemic, registered the largest reductions. But, when the country reopened after the outbreak was brought under control, the industrial output recovered very fast, more so. In fact, it outpaced the totals of 2019.

The US saw a decrease in 650 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions followed by India with a decrease of 200 million tonnes.

Liu’s team independently developed methods to track daily emissions both at national and international levels during the pandemic. The other team to do the same was the Global Carbon Project that has also published their data. Both of the teams have reached similar conclusions and both gathered information from various sources like energy and weather reports, satellite observations, traffic data from vehicle navigation system in many parts of the world.

Together, these data provide insights into the future challenges of mitigating climate change. However, for achieving the 7.6% estimated decrease in emissions as stated in the Paris Agreement goals, there seems to be still a long way to go.

This article first appeared in Newsclick