CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus: Largest drop in carbon emissions in recorded history

Scientists believe the drop in carbon emissions caused by lockdown and the coronavirus is the biggest in recorded history but it might not last.

Coronavirus: Largest drop in carbon emissions in recorded history
DR. MATT DAVEY AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating effect on countries, communities and families. The global economy has not seen anything like it for decades and unemployment is widespread. Cities were closed down because of strict quarantine and isolation measures and airlines have practically ceased operations.

The lack of cars on the road and planes in the sky has contributed to an estimated 17 percent decline in daily global carbon dioxide emissions compared to daily global averages from 2019 according to an analysis carried out on Tuesday and published in the Nature Climate Change journal.

The biggest drop in carbon emissions in history

“Globally, we haven’t seen a drop this big ever, and at the yearly level, you would have to go back to World War II to see such a big drop in emissions,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., and the study’s lead author. “But this is not the way to tackle climate change — it’s not going to happen by forcing behavior changes on people. We need to tackle it by helping people move to more sustainable ways of living.”

Flights between countries were grounded as borders were forced to shut. That led to a decrease in 60% of emissions from aviation, one of the leading contributors to global warming. The lack of cars, buses and other transport led to a 36% decrease in emissions. With companies closed down, 86% of their emissions were removed from the environment.

“Carbon dioxide stays in the air a long time, so although emissions are smaller, they are still happening and so carbon dioxide is still building up, just a little more slowly,” the head of climate impacts research at the Met Office Hadley Centre, Richard Betts, told the Guardian. “If we want to halt the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we need to stop putting it there altogether. It’s like we’re filling a bath and have turned down the tap slightly, but not turned it off.”

It is not likely to last, however. The journal article says: "Social responses alone, as shown here, would not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed."