Did the Pandemic Help in Reducing Global Carbon Emissions?

Divya Mehra

Since the beginning of the year 2020, the world is fighting a life-threatening enemy in the form of a virus that has turned the lives of people around. The Coronavirus, which was identified as SARS-CoV-2, is a new type of virus, which causes a highly infectious disease known as COVID-19 that has brought the world to a halt. As soon as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the spread of this disease as a pandemic, economies around the globe came to a standstill. To stop the spread of the disease and to prepare for the health crisis, almost every country adopted lockdown, resulting in a temporary shutdown of non-essential activities and people were asked to home quarantine.

As anthropogenic activities around the globe dropped, there was a significant reduction noted in global carbon emissions. During the early months of lockdown, a remarkable improvement in the air quality was observed across many major cities of the world such as Beijing, Delhi, London, and many more. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change claims that during April 2020, the global carbon emission went down by 17 per cent or there was a reduction of 17 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide in comparison to the emissions of April 2019, lowest since World War II. China, which is the largest emitter of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), saw emissions reduce by 23.9 per cent. The UK and the USA saw CO2 emissions reduce by 30.7 per cent and 31.6 per cent, respectively. India, which is among the top 5 emitters, saw a 26 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

The major reason for this reduction is attributed to the temporary closure of manufacturing industries, limited surface and air transport, reduction in electricity demands, etc. As per the study, i) the limited movement of people and less use of land transport contributed to a 43 per cent reduction in the global carbon emission, ii) only manufacturing industries associated with essential activities were functioning and hence the overall contribution of industries toward CO2 emissions dropped by 25 per cent, and iii) with almost every nation closing its air space for regular travel, the carbon emission from the aviation industry reduced by 10 per cent.

When we talk about carbon emission, we primarily mean the excess release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This release is generally ascribed to the burning of fossil fuels to fulfill the energy requirements of humans. About 80 per cent of the world’s energy needs still comes from the burning of coal, crude oil, and natural gas. When we burn fossil fuels, a large amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are discharged into our air. They tend to trap the heat in the air which results in temperature rise, ultimately leading to climate change and its impacts.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by almost 50 per cent since 1990. From 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature has increased by 0.85°C. Oceans are warming, snow and ice in the glaciers are melting rapidly and sea level is rising to result in land submergence and extreme weather events. If the current energy extraction from fossil fuels remains as is, it is likely that by the end of this century, the increase in global temperature will exceed 1.5°C. 

While the tremendous drop in carbon emissions during April 2020 presents an opportunity to cherish, experts believe that this good news is only momentary. This decrease will not do much to show a positive effect on climate change or to achieve emission targets as the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is much larger and this reduction is only minuscule.

As countries are slowly and gradually opening up their economies, and there are no fundamental changes in the way economic, transport, and energy systems work, this drop will slowly fade away. For instance, China’s emission levels are growing rapidly post lockdown with a 4-5 per cent increase during May 2020 as compared to May 2019. Governments will have to strengthen their climate change agendas and work towards a long-term reduction in carbon emissions. One way to achieve this is by working towards the targets set under goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 13 emphasises on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. It aims to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards; integrating climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning; and improving education and awareness regarding climate change. The UN Secretary-General has recently proposed six positive climate action for the governments to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic and building clean, green, healthy, safe, and more resilient societies.  

While governments have several targets set to achieve their climate goals, we as individuals should also work towards reducing our carbon footprint. This can be accomplished by making some very basic and simple changes in ways of living such as following the 5 R’s of zero waste – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot, Recycle; minimizing the use of plastics; avoiding motorized vehicle as much as possible or using public transport; avoiding unnecessary travel – especially air travel; responsible use of water; eating locally produced food, etc. If every individual work towards reducing their carbon footprint, then it is likely that we will be able to alter the course of climate change.

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