COVID-19 Restrictions Bring Temporary Emission Reductions

Restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have indirectly caused a sudden decline in greenhouse gas emissions, producing several short-term effects. Although temporary, widespread lockdown initiatives have given insight into the quantitative measures needed to combat the rising global warming threat.


In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have been forced into lockdown, which has been exceedingly detrimental to both their economies and everyday societal functions. While governmental measures were initially implemented to isolate symptomatic individuals, efforts to slow down the virus’ transmission rate were quickly ramped up to include mass gathering bans as well as mandatory home confinement. Evidently, these stringent measures have severely disrupted normal economic activity by altering standard patterns of energy use. However, while efforts to minimize the spread of the virus have noticeably slowed down economic activity and growth, the forced reduction in energy demand and consumption has, in turn, yielded environmental benefits. 

With commuters confined to their homes, airline operations halted, and many factories forced to shut down, it is no surprise that daily greenhouse gas emissions have coincidingly fallen in many countries in the world, particularly within large energy-consuming nations. Between early February and mid-March, for instance, China’s carbon emissions were found to have declined by nearly 18%, which can be specifically attributed to disruptions in coal consumption and industrial output. Experts believe this sharp decline has in turn prevented the largest greenhouse gas emitter (China) from releasing roughly 250 million metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. On the other hand, reduced industrial activity across the European Union is expected to cause CO2 emissions to decrease by about 400 million metric tonnes, an estimate representing nearly 9% of the EU’s 2020 emission goal. Similar disruptions are also expected to curtail emissions across the United States, the second largest emitter after China.

Therefore, though this predicted decline cannot be entirely certain in lieu of restrictions beginning to slowly ease, the emission cuts observed across these large sectors could mark a significant reduction in the global carbon footprint.

By observing emission drops specifically within the American and Chinese economies and EU Emissions Trading Sector, as well as India’s electricity sector and entire global oil sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the pandemic could cut global emissions by about 2 billion metric tonnes of CO2. As outlined in the IEA’s recent Carbon Brief analysis, such an estimated decline would equate to roughly 5.5% of last year’s global total. Having consistently accounted for about three-quarters of total CO2 emissions released over the past few years, these five sectors collectively represent the majority of annual global emissions. Therefore, though this predicted decline cannot be entirely certain in lieu of restrictions beginning to slowly ease, the emission cuts observed across these large sectors could mark a significant reduction in the global carbon footprint. This is especially true as other sectors, and countries not yet included in the preliminary analysis, will likely contribute to the total carbon footprint decline. 

Aside from carbon emissions, other greenhouse gases such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) have also fallen in many countries. For example, following traffic limitations and quarantine measures heavily enforced in China, NO2 levels were found to have decreased by 12.9 μg/m3 while PM readings have declined by 18.9 μg/m3. Similar patterns have also been observed across the EU, with significant falls in NO2 seen particularly in large cities such as Madrid, Rome, and Paris. Following the rapid decline in both NO2 and PM, as well as CO2, reports of improved air quality, reduced noise pollution, and even increased biodiversity have all been recorded. However, while these environmental effects may seem significant, they will likely be short-lived. Unless current restrictions persist past the pandemic, emissions will presumably revert to their original trajectory as many countries begin to revitalize their economies to offset any losses.  

When examining the past, countries that recover from an economic crisis will often see their rates of industrial activity and consumption soar above normal levels, with emissions subsequently increasing as well. Soon after the 2008 global financial crisis, for example, the 1.4% decline in CO2 emissions was abruptly followed by a large 5.1% increase. Assuming that a post-crisis economic rebound will occur as the pandemic gradually fades, greenhouse gas emissions will likely return to their previous concentrations and may even increase, thus creating more environmental issues.

Thus, though the amount of global emissions may seem smaller, greenhouse gases are still being released into the atmosphere – just at a slower rate. 

Therefore, though this year may mark the largest drop in emissions, the decline is not sufficient enough to generate lasting change. Despite the rapid fall in greenhouse gases, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has still claimed this year to be the second warmest on record, with chances of it even being the warmest yet as lockdown restrictions gradually lift and industrial activities resume. Thus, though the amount of global emissions may seem smaller, greenhouse gases are still being released into the atmosphere – just at a slower rate. 

As changes in climate are influenced by decades of greenhouse gas accumulation, one year of slightly reduced emissions will likely not reverse the long-term effects that have amassed over the past few decades. In order to significantly curb the climate crisis, it is believed that future temperature trends cannot exceed the 1.5-degree Celsius warming limit, as clearly outlined in The Paris Climate Agreement. To achieve this, experts involved in the United Nation Environment Programme have found that global emissions would need to decrease by roughly 7.6% every year from 2020-2030. Thus, by the end of this year, a massive 2.8 billion metric tonnes of CO2 would need to be cut. Though achievable through strict low-carbon measures, maintaining such a large and rapid rate of yearly emission cuts for the entire decade would, in actuality, be a very difficult task. As discussed in a recent energy-modeling report, many scenarios attempting to incorporate low energy demand as a new economical norm generally prioritize balancing decreased demand with a higher well-being. 

Given the numerous economic and social constraints, therefore, reducing emissions by such a massive rate via the tight restrictions currently in place today is highly unrealistic. However, despite this, opportunities to implement low-carbon pathways still exist, which would effectively allow for long-term structural changes to occur within economic, energy, and transport systems.

Art by Tina Smaile

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