Carbon emissions are falling sharply from Coronavirus... But not for long.
IT IS BECOMING clearer every day that the scale of disruption caused by coronavirus is like nothing we have witnessed. One indicator of the pandemic’s far-reaching impact is its effect on fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. If data from the world’s biggest economies is any indicator, emissions are in for a sharp, if temporary, decline.
In China, carbon emissions were down an estimated 18 percent between early February and mid-March due to falls in coal consumption and industrial output, according to calculations first published by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief. That slowdown caused the world’s largest emitter to avoid some 250 million metric tons of carbon pollution—more than half the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, declining power demands and depressed manufacturing could cause emissions to fall by nearly 400 million metric tons this year, a figure that represents about 9 percent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target, according to a preliminary forecast issued last week. Data for the United States remains limited, experts expect that the coronavirus’s impacts will also ripple into the atmosphere as the economy continues to tailspin.
Clearly, this planetary breather is nothing to celebrate. And it could be a short-term blip: In China, emissions are already rebounding as the country restarts its factories. Absent strong governmental support for clean energy moving forward, experts say the pandemic won’t reverse the upward march of global carbon emissions, something that needs to happen immediately in order to help the world meet its climate targets.
“In terms of direct, physical impacts, yes we’re seeing a slowdown in some emissions,” says Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But of course, what really matters is cumulative emissions. If it’s short lived, it’s not really touching the tip of the iceberg.”
China’s emissions fell, then started rebounding
As the early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and the first country to take dramatic measures to curb it, China is where the virus’s impact on carbon emissions first became visible. According to an earlier analysis published by CarbonBrief, emissions plunged some 25 percent in the first four weeks following Chinese New Year in late January as coal consumption and industrial activities like oil refining and cement making failed to rebound after the yearly holiday slowdown.
“The reason for that was very clear cut,” says Li Shuo, a senior policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia. “It was primarily because of the social economic disruption created by coronavirus.”
With the nation in lockdown, workers couldn’t get to factories and demand for energy, along with materials like steel and cement, remained low.
But as the number of coronavirus cases has dropped, China has been working hard to restart its economy over the past month. By the end of March, energy usage, air pollution levels, and carbon emissions all seemed to be on the rebound, according to the Finland-based non-profit Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air’s Lauri Myllyvirta, who led the CarbonBrief analysis. That’s reflected in Myllyvirta’s latest figures, which show an emissions decline of just 18 percent over a seven-week period beginning in early February.
Shuo says it’s “unavoidable” that a future government stimulus package will include funding for some large-scale infrastructure projects, noting that the Chinese government prefers that strategy for counteracting economic declines in the service sector. That will likely cause a surge in carbon pollution, but it’s unclear whether it will fully counteract emissions declines related to the widespread economic distress.
“A month ago, most people thought this was a temporary dip in the emissions curve,” Shuo says. “If your time frame is ‘within this year,’ it is now very hard to tell, because globally and in China what is happening [to the economy] is more than a dip.”
Declines in Europe and the U.S.
As China’s economy continues its bumpy ascent, the economies of the U.S. and the EU, the world’s second and third largest carbon emitters, are tanking. Early data suggest major declines in power consumption and transit-related emissions as governments order people to stay home from work and non-essential industries to go into hibernation.
In Italy, which primarily uses natural gas to generate electricity, power demands fell steadily after the nation went into lockdown in early March. By the end of the month, demand was down 27 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to a March 30 research memo by consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. In France (primarily nuclear), which ordered a nationwide lockdown about a week after Italy, power demands are also plunging, while in the UK (natural gas), demand is starting to decline following last week’s stay-at-home order.
Assuming the recent drop in Italy’s electricity consumption is a sign of what’s to come elsewhere, EU-wide power demands could fall 6.2 percent by the end of the year compared with a pandemic-free world, according to a forecastissued last week by Marcus Ferdinand, an analyst at Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, a consulting firm.
Combining this drop-off in Europe’s electricity appetite with projected sharp declines in industrial activity and air traffic, Ferdinand predicted that EU-wide emissions could fall by as much as 389 million metric tons this year. That’s more than the annual emissions of France and close to 9 percent of the EU’s targeted cumulative emissions for 2020.
Ferdinand cautions that this projection is based on “quite a few assumptions that need to be reassessed as we go along in this crisis.” But even if some of his assumptions about the economy, like a presumed 50 percent decline in industrial activity between April and June, prove pessimistic, the analysis doesn’t account for other key sources of carbon emissions, like ground transportation, which also appears to have fallen in hard-hit places like Italy. (Ferdinand’s analysis only looked at sectors of the economy whose emissions are governed by the EU’s cap-and-trade scheme.)
Source: National Geographic