Emissions Jump as Lockdown Restrictions Are Eased

After weeks of cleaner air, it's back to business as usual in many countries.

polluted skies in Shanghai
Polluted skies in Shanghai, China.

Tim Graham / Getty Images 

The COVID-19 global lockdown had a profound effect on greenhouse gas emissions. With so many people being told to stay home, planes grounded, borders closed, mass gatherings banned, shopping centers and schools shuttered, much of the world's usual activity ground to a halt – which had the benefit of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere on a daily basis.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, calculated that daily emissions dropped 17 percent (equivalent to 17 million metric tonnes of CO2) by early April of 2020, compared to the same time in 2019. Their study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change in May, further analyzed the decrease:

"Emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, account for almost half (43 percent) of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement on April 7. Emissions from industry and from power together account for a further 43 percent of the decrease in daily global emissions."

By the middle of June, however, emissions had surged back. The study authors published an update, showing that many governments had eased lockdown restrictions, allowing people to move around more normally, and this meant that mid-June emissions were only 5 percent lower than they were a year before. The New York Times reported that "emissions in China, which accounts for one-quarter of the world’s carbon pollution, appear to have returned to pre-pandemic levels."

The rapid resurgence was surprising, the authors told the Times, but really, it shouldn't be, because none of our global infrastructure has changed. Climate scientist and lead author Corinne Le Quéré said, "We still have the same cars, the same power plants, the same industries that we had before the pandemic." It would make sense for these simply to return to business as usual once restrictions were lifted.

One distressing detail about the study is that the 17 percent drop seen in April only reduced emissions to 2006 levels, which underscores the tremendous growth in emissions that has occurred over the past 14 years. This also highlights the enormous task we face if we hope to limit planetary warming to 1.5 °C, because the amount we need to decrease emissions year over year in order to reach that target is on par with what 2020's total reduction in emissions is projected to be – between 4 and 7 percent, depending on how long lockdown restrictions last. If we didn't realize how daunting the task was beforehand, now we have a better sense of it, and it certainly requires a slower-paced life.

On a more positive note, the study revealed how responsive surface transportation networks can be to policy changes and economic shifts. Changes in transportation accounted for nearly half of the decrease in emissions during lockdown, and a surge in active transportation has gotten more people interested in biking and walking in order to maintain social distance, get exercise, and enjoy the uncommonly clean air. The scientists hope that this trend continues, and some cities do appear to be making it easier. The Times said,

"Paris and Milan are adding miles of new bike lanes. London has increased congestion charges on cars traveling into the city at peak hours. Officials in Berlin have discussed requiring residents to buy bus passes in order to make car travel less attractive. But those efforts are still far from universal."

There are concerns that the rush to stimulate economies will bypass environmental considerations. The study said there have been some "calls by some governments and industry to delay Green New Deal programs and to weaken vehicle emission standards, and the disruption of clean energy deployment." Outside of Europe, most governments are "scrambling to recover economically and not paying as much attention to the environment," according to David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California. 

But the environment cannot be ignored. Now is the time for drastic systemic change, when the memory of a slower, quieter, and less polluting existence is fresh in our minds. It's far easier to rein in the recovery now and make it greener from the start than it is to reverse it down the road. Even the World Meteorological Society has spoken out, urging governments to tackle climate change with the same dedication that they did the pandemic. Or, as my Treehugger colleague Lloyd Alter has said, "Start as you intend to go on." (I believe he was quoting his wife.)

Action now is crucial, the study authors say: "The extent to which world leaders consider the net-zero emissions targets and the imperatives of climate change when planning their economic responses to COVID-19 is likely to influence the pathway of CO2 emissions for decades to come."

Read the full study here.