COVID-19 and Global Emissions

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth Science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said in an interview:

  • We’re blowing through our carbon budget the way an addict blows through cash.  It’s troubling, because carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution is higher than it’s ever been.

Global emissions have risen for three consecutive years, at a time when they should be starting to drop sharply if the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.  The news of still-growing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is the latest in a drumbeat of negative findings that come as world leaders gather in Madrid for an annual climate change conference, where they face mounting pressure to alter the current trajectory.

A bleak report, Emission Gap Report 2019, published in November 2019 by the UN Environment Program, detailed how off-target the world remains in its collective goal of limiting the Earth’s warming. It said global emissions must fall by nearly 8 percent per year over the next decade to stay in line with the goal of limiting warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Deforestation and other forms of land use during 2019 also contributed to the human-caused emissions of methane and other GHG. The Global Carbon Project said wildfires in the Amazon and elsewhere helped drive land-use emissions to 6 billion tons of CO2 — an increase over 2018 levels. The net result is that the world is projected to have produced 43 billion tons of CO2 emissions from all sources in 2019.

The global surge in CO2 was indeed a bad news for those who believe in climate change.  However, it was dreadful news for everybody about Coronavirus (COVID-19) that was previously not known to the world, broke in the city of Wuhan in December 2019 and spread recklessly around the world.  As a result, thousands of People died and thousands more fallen ill in more than 124 countries around the world.  It was considered a public health thread and declared to be a pandemic by the World Health Organization. By early spring, Europe had become the worst-affected region, with Italy and Spain particularly hard hit.  In a short period of time, the world has been transformed and millions of human lives around the world were impacted drastically.   

The United States surpassed Italy on Saturday (11 April 2020) to become the country with the highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths, reporting more than 19,600 fatalities since the outbreak began. Public health experts have warned that the U.S. death toll could spike to 200,000 over the summer if the stay-at-home orders that have closed businesses and kept most Americans indoors are lifted after 30 days.


Finding the silver lining could be difficult but the only good thing came out of this abysmal tragedy was that it slow downed almost all non-essential activities around the world.  China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.  The strategy that underpinned this containment effort was initially a national approach that promoted universal temperature monitoring, masking, and hand washing.  Slowdown in China took out the equivalent of almost 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 and China could curb global emissions from air travel by 11 to 19 per cent, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

As a result of self-isolation across the world, millions of people are avoiding their usual commutes, school runs and shopping trips. Global air traffic decreased by 4.3 percent in February, even before countries started imposing travel bans for travelers from Europe and other ‘high-risk’ countries.

COVID-19 is curbing carbon emissions
Source: Al Jazeera

At the same time drastic preventive measures that are being implemented around the world against COVID-19 led to an astonishing fall in air pollution in the most heavily populated parts of the planet and carbon emissions have declined sharply as lives are put on hold, industry is scaled down, streets quieten, aircraft grounded.

New Evidence Shows How COVID-19 Affected Air Pollution
Source: ESA/youtube

Here is a reality check – Air pollution is responsible for millions of premature deaths globally, and in fact the reduction in pollutant levels means that tens of thousands of deaths will be avoided.

Speaking to The Green News, climate journalist and activist John Gibbons said that the “temporary” positive impact of COIVID-19 outbreak on carbon emissions is no cause for celebration. “I don’t see any reason for optimism arising from temporary emissions cuts due to the Coronavirus emergency.  He also said:

  • Special interest lobbyists are already using this emergency as an excuse to demand reductions in taxes and regulations reinforces this point; and
  • As long as there are no rules in place to ratchet global carbon emissions steadily downwards, year after year, in line with the science, then emissions will rebound to their upward trajectory as soon as the emergency period around COVID-19 abates.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead author Professor Alistair Woodward said global emissions were dropping – for now. “People are not moving around so much, trade has dropped, international travel has dropped, production has fallen, so I’m sure that there will be a temporary drop.”

The first thing to consider, says Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability science researcher at Lund University in Sweden, is the different reasons that emissions have dropped. Take transport, for example, which makes up 23% of global carbon emissions. These emissions have fallen in the short term in countries where public health measures, such as keeping people in their homes, have cut unnecessary travel. Driving and aviation are key contributors to emissions from transport, contributing 72% and 11% of the transport sector’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively.

We know that for the duration of reduced travel during the pandemic, these emissions will stay lowered. But what will happen when measures are eventually lifted? 

In terms of routine trips like commuting, those miles left untraveled during the pandemic aren’t going to come back – you’re not going to travel to the office twice a day to make up for all the times you worked from home, says Nicholas. But what about other kinds of travel – might the cabin-fever of self-isolation encourage people to travel more when the option is there again?


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) predicts that the global economy will still grow in 2020, albeit growth predictions have fallen by half because of coronavirus. But even with this recovery, researchers such as Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environment Research in Oslo have noted that overall 2020 may still see a drop in global emissions of 0.3% – less pronounced than the crash of 2008-09, but also with an opportunity for less rebound if efforts to stimulate the economy are focused towards sectors such as clean energy.

Kanata, Ontario, Canada 11 April 2020