‘First Ever’ Near Real-Time Analysis of Global Carbon Emissions Reveals Coronavirus Impacts

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An empty road in Istanbul, Turkey.
An empty road in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: Getty

Lockdowns around the world are having a measurable effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. A new study out Tuesday found that daily emissions dropped by 17 percent in April 2020 compared to last year’s average levels. This is a sizable dip, but the findings offer a sobering reality check: Individual actions just aren’t enough to save us from ourselves.

The paper, published in Nature Climate Change, is the first peer-reviewed study to assess the daily global drop in greenhouse gas reductions due to the coronavirus pandemic from January to April. Several assessments have taken a preliminary look at emissions reductions as the world has ground to a halt, but none have done such a comprehensive analysis of daily reductions.

Normally, emissions data is an annual accounting process done by individual countries. But here, the authors used various data sets to conduct a daily analysis. To come to their conclusion, they looked at data from six sectors: power, industry, transportation, public buildings and commerce, residential, and aviation. The analysis includes looking at changes in traffic data to estimate the reduction from transportation and electricity data to estimate emission changes from the power sector. Industry data was hardest for the researchers to get, making those emissions the most challenging to estimate.


“Significantly, this is the first ever attempt to estimate global carbon dioxide emissions on a daily basis, in close to real time,” Simon Evans, a climate researcher and deputy editor of Carbon Brief, a site that has analyzed emissions data, told Earther.

Corinne Le Quéré, a research professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia and study author, told Earther she was expecting a larger impact to come from the industry and power sectors. But to her surprise, most of the changes in daily emissions under coronavirus lockdowns can be attributed to the transit sector. The sector’s daily global greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 36 percent. In comparison, the power sector saw emissions fall 7.4 percent.

All of this is temporary, though. Aviation, for instance, saw its emissions decline by a whopping 60 percent during this period, but these emissions won’t stay this way. People are likely going to want to return to life as usual—island vacations and all!—once the fear of coronavirus passes or when a vaccine is finalized. China is already seeing air pollution rise in the month since lockdown ended.


“The emissions reductions being caused by this crisis are of unprecedented magnitude but are, nevertheless, barely in line with what would be needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, even if similar cuts were sustained year after year,” Evans said.

In fact, even returning to a limited version of life as it used to be will negate the emission drops we’re seeing. The authors predict total annual emissions will only drop 4.2 percent should activities return to pre-crisis levels by mid-June. Even in the scenario where some social distancing measures are still in place for the rest of the year, the researchers predict an annual reduction of 7.5 percent.


“The decrease in emissions we observe now is unlikely to last because it is forced and not desirable, and because it is not supported by more fundamental changes in the way we use and produce energy,” Le Quéré told Earther in an email. “Our study shows that behavior change can help reduce emissions, but there are serious limits to what it can achieve. That’s not the way to tackle climate change. Actions to tackle climate change should be planned in a way that helps with the economy but that moves away from fossil fuels.”

Working from home and driving less can lower emissions, but these efforts aren’t sustainable without system-wide changes to help people make these choices voluntarily. For instance, some cities are closing off streets to cars, creating more open spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to flourish. This is but a small example of the type of permanent changes society needs to become carbon-free. It’s something Le Quéré hopes governments build into their stimulus packages as they plan economic recoveries to cope with this mess.


“It’s the ambitious and strategic vision that is needed to stimulate the economy in a way that takes us on the path to net-zero emissions, that we need now as we design economic packages to get out of the current crisis,” she said.

And the only way out is abandoning fossil fuels. That can only happen through strong policies, such as supporting electric vehicles, building robust charging station systems, transitioning to renewables, and putting a price on pollution. Many politicians, however, seem more preoccupied with kissing the industry’s ass at the moment.