Photograph of white smoke from a red white chimney against the skyUnderstanding why emissions fell during coronavirus gives insight for keeping them sustainable post-pandemic

The promise of sustainable pollution levels has been witnessed the world over. In Venice, canal water is running clear in the absence of boats churning it up. In central London — with the hum of traffic gone — birds are audibly singing. In Punjab, India, the Himalayas are visible on the skyline with the decline of air pollution. Even wild goats have been roaming the streets of a small town in Wales.

These are some of the inspiring changes that have occured since nations went into lockdown and economies slowed. The inspiring transitions people have witnessed during lockdown have managed to push climate change up the agenda. However, it is deeply concerning that a global pandemic, which has claimed lives and disrupted daily life, could be needed to bring about lasting environmental change. 

Crucially, the duration of the drop in emissions is uncertain. Many environmentalists cite caution as levels will likely rise once economies restart. Peter Betts, Associate Fellow at the non-governmental organisation Chatham House and previous UK Lead Climate Negotiator, points out that this is not the solution to climate change that it immediately appears to be. Mr Betts explains: “Closing down our entire economies for a period of weeks or months is not going to get us toward decarbonising. There may be some positive behavioural impact, but the real question is: What happens in the recovery phase? Do we just go back to business as usual?”

Understanding falling emissions and how to make them sustainable

Taking a closer look at the reasons behind the drop in emissions makes it possible to approach post-lockdown activity in more environmentally friendly ways. Transport, for instance, accounts for 23 per cent of global carbon emissions. The sector has experienced a short-term decline among the nations where public health mandates deemed travel non-essential. Looking deeper into transportation emissions, the major contributors are driving (72 per cent) and aviation (11 per cent); both of which have been impacted by COVID-19.

In Hubei Province, China, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fell by 40 per cent during lockdown. Meanwhile, as measures used to stem the spread of COVID-19 ease, businesses are reopening and the roads are becoming busy once again, signalling a gradual rise in emissions. Taken as a whole, the data from various countries points towards the unprecedented global disruption as the cause of the sudden drop in global pollution levels. Economies will likely be staggered in their resumption of activities, most likely due to the effectiveness of the various coronavirus strategies being used around the globe.

The pandemic has probably already altered global emissions for the year. Economic growth is intimately linked to carbon emissions. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions may fall by 0.3 per cent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Glen Peters, Research Director at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, explains: “My expectation is this will drag on for a few years in terms of stunted economic growth.” For comparison, an overall decline of 1.3 per cent followed the financial crisis of 2008-09, but by 2010 emissions had recovered and even increased.

Approaching emissions post-coronavirus

A sustainable, pro-environment approach in the post coronavirus world already appears to be taking a backseat in some countries. US President Donald Trump seems to be sidelining environmental considerations in efforts to reignite the American economy. At the end of March, the Trump Administration rolled back the fuel efficiency standards law. The Obama-era law pushed automobile manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. 

Compounding this, the US government announced an economic stimulus bill at the end of March that included a $50 billion bailout for the aviation industry. It seems that reducing fossil fuel use and moving towards cleaner renewables will not be at the forefront of the post-coronavirus agenda in the US.

Reducing emissions appears to have been similarly pushed aside in China. As the Chinese government looks to reignite the economy, the Non-Government Organisation Global Energy Monitor has uncovered plans that the Chinese government intends to increase coal-fired energy output.

Promoting environmentally-sound and sustainable practices

The United States and China aside, the economic stimulus plans that governments are drawing up to counteract damage from coronavirus offer an excellent opportunity to work towards sustainable energy goals. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), explains: “We have an opportunity to put, at the heart of stimulus packages, measures to speed up clean energy transitions and to boost energy resilience, so countries and industries come out of this crisis in a better position than they were before.”

In his commentary on clean energy published in March, Mr Birol noted: “The costs of key renewable technologies, such as solar and wind, are far lower than during previous periods when governments launched stimulus packages. The technology for both solar and wind is in a much better shape than in the past.” This could be complicated, Mr Birol notes, by the sharp decline in oil which may undermine energy efficiency policies.

Furthermore, the fall in oil production is tied to the drop in oil prices which represents an opportunity for governments to lift subsidies. Globally, there are around $400bn in subsidies for non-renewables. Some 40 per cent of these are used to reduce the cost of oil products. Mr Birol concludes: “The drop in oil prices is a great opportunity for countries to lower or remove subsidies for fossil fuel consumption. Governments need to make sure they keep clean energy transitions front of mind as they respond to this fast-evolving crisis.”

Countries already making the switch to sustainable practices

Some nations are heeding the opportunity for change and introducing measures to reduce emissions and improve cities when lockdown lifts. In mid-April, the Milan city government announced plans to reallocate its roads for more walking and cycling. The northern Italian city and the surrounding Lombardy region is one of Europe’s most polluted. It has also been among the worst-hit regions in the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, air pollution over the city has significantly dropped as well as congestion. Indeed, city officials plan to limit the return of heavy traffic and high emissions as residents begin to return to business as usual. 

Global emissions may fall in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But what must be recognised is that this is not thanks to the efforts of governments and enterprise slashing emissions across the board. In February, the IEA announced that global carbon dioxide levels stopped growing in 2019, even as the world economy grew by three per cent. Let’s hope that last year will be viewed as the tipping point when the emissions curve flattened before it began to decline. The temporary drops in emissions and pollution witnessed during COVID-19 can be taken as inspiration to spark greater efforts to move to environmentally sound practices.