Forced confinements during the COVID-19 global pandemic have resulted in altered energy demands internationally, reports a new Global Carbon Project study published recently in Nature Climate Change. Daily global CO2 emissions saw a decrease of –17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, nearly half of which can be accounted for from changes in surface transport. What can we learn from this odd time, and how can we keep some of this momentum going?
The initiative was spearheaded by Stanford University scientist Rob Jackson, who is a professor of Earth system science in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Jackson is particularly interested in the takeaways that we can grow into the future from current COVID-19 government policies.
"People marvel at how quickly the air cleared when we stopped driving," Jackson said. "My son in Los Angeles called and said, 'Dad, the skies are blue!' The environment is resilient, and people are too."
According to the study’s projections, we can expect 2020 annual emissions to finish out the year with a low estimate of –4% if pre-pandemic conditions return by mid-June, and a high estimate of –7% if some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of 2020. That being said, the US saw a reduction of emissions by one third for part of April due to reduced mobility, manufacturing, and electricity demand. The levels we see now are currently equivalent to levels last observed in 2006.
But if we want to keep that resiliency going strong, we will need to change infrastructure as well as policies. Jackson points toward the recession of 2008 as an example, signaling that while CO2 emissions dropped globally 1.5% that year, emissions leaped by 5% the following year.
There is also the idea that COVID-19 could permanently change the way we see commuting and transportation. "Cities from Milan to Seattle are closing miles of streets to traffic permanently and opening them to pedestrians and bicyclists. Telecommuting, even part-time, might be the new normal. Traffic congestion has vaporized. Electric cars are fast and can be fossil-free, changing a sector of the economy that's been hard to decarbonize."
"The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,” said study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science and policy at the University of East Anglia. “Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement. For example in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for wellbeing and air quality than building roads, and it preserves social distancing."