Coronavirus could trigger 'largest ever annual fall in CO2' in 2020, study suggests

Photo of empty M4 motorway in Wales taken at the end of March 2020 | Credit: Seth Whales
Photo of empty M4 motorway in Wales taken at the end of March 2020 | Credit: Seth Whales

But tentative analysis from Carbon Brief points out likely reduction in CO2 this year would still be far off goals of the Paris Agreement

The global economic slowdown triggered by the escalating coronavirus crisis is on course to deliver the steepest annual fall in CO2 in history, with a larger reduction in emissions expected in 2020 than seen even during the Second World War, tentative analysis today from Carbon Brief indicates.

Recent weeks have seen unprecedented disruption to the global economy, with efforts to halt further spread of the deadly pandemic resulting in economies going into lockdown, travel restrictions that have drastically cut down on flights, major industrial and manufacturing closures, declining energy demand, and fewer people using fossil fuels to power cars, trains and boats.

As a result, studies suggest CO2 in Europe has dropped 58 per cent since lockdowns began several weeks ago, while the International Energy Agency (IEA) is projecting 7.5 per cent annual reduction in the USA's energy-related carbon emissions during 2020.

And, projections released today by Carbon Brief suggest that, based on several sources of economic and emissions data, the pandemic could result in a global CO2 reduction in the region of 1,600 million tonnes compared to 2019, which would roughly equate to a four per cent fall in emissions.

While stressing the figure is "necessarily uncertain" due to a range of factors, a drop in CO2 to that effect would mark a greater reduction in emissions than seen during any previous economic crisis or wartime period, including both World Wars in 20th century, Carbon Brief said.

The five previous biggest falls in emissions occurred during World War Two, the global recession in 1991-92, the early 1980s energy crisis, the Spanish flu pandemic shortly after the First World War, and the 2008 financial crash, according to the analysis.

Yet, as it is quick to point out, if emissions do end up roughly four per cent lower in 2020 than last year, it would likely only be a temporary blip before industry gets motoring again towards recovery, as little would likely have changed the fundamental structure of the global economy.

Crucially, too, it emphasises that such a reduction would still not even come close to bringing the 1.5C global warming target set out in the Paris Agreement within reach.

Indeed, the IPCC has said global emissions would need to fall by more than six per cent every year in the 2020s - more than 2,200 million tonnes of CO2 annually - to even stand a chance of maintaining average temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial times by the end of the century.

Delivering such rapid, deep and sustained cuts in emissions clearly remains a tremendous challenge for the global economy, and any emissions cuts this year will have little impact on achieving climate targets unless it is followed by longer lasting changes to the economy, the analysis points out.

"To put it another way, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to increase again this year, even if CO2 emissions cuts are greater still," it states. "Rising CO2 concentrations - and related global warming - will only stabilise once annual emissions reach net-zero."

Moreover, as green figures have repeatedly stressed since the scale of the coronavirus crisis became clearer, the short term cuts in emissions as a result of economic downturns and public health crises offer little cause for celebration. Not only are people's lives and livelihoods at risk, but the current crisis is set to severely hamper investment and rollout of the low carbon economy.

Just yesterday, for example, US analyst Wood Mackenzie forecasted a 43 per cent drop in global electric vehicle sales in 2020 due to the current pandemic, which is likely to hold back the burgeoning sector's progress by at least 12 months before it stands any change of returning to growth.

Carbon Brief's analysis took in five key datasets, covering roughly three quarters of the world's annual CO2 emissions, including the entire output of the US, the EU carbon market, the Indian power sector and the global oil industry.

From that, and in conjunction with a range of other sources, Carbon Brief crunched data to reach its estimate, but its analysis today is at pains to stress the experimental nature of the projection, due to myriad challenges in securing reliable data and forecasting for the year ahead during a deeply uncertain and unprecedented period for much of the global economy.

As such, it is entirely possible that emissions could end up dropping even further than Carbon Brief's current headline forecast, perhaps by as much as 10 per cent - more than double today's estimate - should the World trade Organisation's worst case scenario of a nine per cent fall in global GDP come to bear in 2020.

Growing calls have therefore been coming for economic recovery packages which focus on stimulating green infrastructure rather than high carbon projects, although it remains to be seen how quickly the pandemic can be brought under control, and how long economic restrictions could be in place.

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