Early indications of the global impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic show a dramatic fall in global greenhouse gas emissions, and particularly in transport as the shift to working from home drive and the cut-back in international travel delivered massive cuts in transport emissions.
And while researchers warn that the cuts to global emissions may only be temporary, the new data points to the potential that changes in work practices and the shift to an electric-focused transport system could have to deliver more sustainable outcomes.
The researchers have found the impacts on global emissions have varied as Covid-19 has spread across different countries. An early reduction in emissions was achieved in February, where daily emissions fell by around 8 per cent, caused primarily by the initial shutdowns in industrial hubs of China.
The study examines activity across 69 countries, including Australia, that capturies 97 per cent of global emissions, and compares emissions for the first four months of 2020 to the corresponding period in 2019.
The early findings of the research have been published in the journal Nature Climate Change, and was undertaken by researchers at Australia’s CSIRO, along with the University of East Anglia, Stanford University, the CICERO Centre for International Climate Research under the banner of the Global Carbon Project.
“Emissions reached their peak decline on 7 April, with a 17 per cent decline compared to the same time last year,” CSIRO researcher and Global Carbon Project Director Dr Pep Canadell said.
“To put that figure in context, daily emissions declined on average between January to April by 8.6 per cent again compared to the same period last year.”
A second, larger, fall in emissions was observed throughout April, followed the wider outbreak of Covid-19, which shut down economic activity across a much wider range of countries.
A cut to manufacturing activity that spread to the United States, Europe and India resulted in a substantial cut to energy use across both electricity generation and manufacturing.
More significantly, restrictions on the movement of people within major cities have achieved a dramatic reduction in the number of people commuting to work, have seen cuts in transport emissions emerge as the largest contributor to global emissions falls seen throughout April.
The researchers estimate that reductions in the number of cars and other vehicles on the roads has led to a 36 per cent reduction in emissions in land transport, contributing to a 7.5 million tonne reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
It provides an interesting insight into how emissions may be reduced in the transport sector where cuts have otherwise proven elusive.
“Across other sectors, the power sector ranked second and the industry sector (encompassing manufacturing and material productions) third in terms of their contributions to the global decrease in emissions in early April,” Dr Canadell added.
The paper details how the restrictions have seen daily global greenhouse gas emissions fall by as as much as 17 per cent in April, compared to the same time last year.
“Decreases in emissions in 2020 were largest in China where industry and communities first locked down, followed by the US, Europe, and then India,” CSIRO researcher and report co-author Dr Josep Canadell, said.
“The peak 17 per cent daily decline on 7 April was because China, the US, India, and all other major carbon-emitting countries were all in a high-level of lock-down at the same time.”
The researchers said that the fall in emissions was only slightly offset by increases in residential emissions, as people work from home increasing demand on residential energy use.
“With people being urged to stay home and isolate there was a corresponding increase in global residential emissions (2.8 per cent) which saw a 0.2 megatonne increase in CO2 at its peak decline.” Dr Canadell added.
While air travel has been significantly impacted by restrictions on international travel, the overall impact on global emissions was comparatively small. A 60 per cent fall in aviation activity in April, compared to the same time last year, saw emissions fall by 1.7 million tonnes.
The changes in activity were also outlined in a report published by the International Energy Agency on Wednesday, which found road transport activity and aviation transport halved throughout most international markets in April.
The researchers warn, however, that the cuts to emissions is likely to be temporary and will be dependent on how long Covid-19 restriction measures remain in place.
Additionally, the overall level of emissions reduction will be dependent on the degree to which activity returns back to “normal”.
The study estimates that overall emissions for 2020 would likely come in at between 4 per cent and 7 per cent below 2019 levels, with the level dependent upon whether activity returns to pre-pandemic levels before the end of the year.
A return to increased levels of air pollution has already begun to be observed in some parts of China, as the country begins to lift restrictions imposed due to Covid-19.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic triggered worldwide restrictions on movement, global greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing steadily year on year.
In Australia, while emissions have consistently fallen in the electricity sector as the uptake of wind and solar grows, these gains have been offset by steady increases in Australia’s transport emissions.
With lower emissions transport alternatives harder to come by, until such time as electric vehicle uptake grows, the changes to workplace arrangements forced by Covid-19 provide an opportunity to observe how emissions in the sector may be cut.
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