According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Business Insider and Statista, as of the 24 April 2020, over a third of the world’s population, somewhere between 2.6 and 3.2 billion people worldwide, are under lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. It is likely, one of the more positive effects could be the largest annual drop in carbon emissions ever recorded in our history.
As we continue to live track CO2 against a number of different probabilistic models, some forecast predictions are suggesting emissions may fall more than 5% in 2020. If that would be the case, this would be the greatest annual reduction ever recorded. However, even this is still short of the 7.6% decline that many scientists say is required each year over the next decade to slow global temperatures from rising a further 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Although we will not see an immediate change, due to latent atmospheric mixing, there may be a number of other factors, that could alter the forecast predictions.
1. IF QUARANTINE MEASURES CONTINUE THROUGH THE YEAR, CARBON DIOXIDE REDUCTIONS COULD EXCEED FORECASTS
Carbon Brief analysed the emissions impact of China’s shutdown earlier this year. It concluded that emissions dropped 25% over a four-week period beginning 3 February 2020, but as of 28 April 2020, had not yet had impact on (MOL) monitoring stations. Emissions began to rebound as normal life in China showed signs of resuming. In the United States, emissions were likely 15%-20% lower between March 15 and April 14 compared with the same period last year, according to a recent report by Rhodium.
So why aren’t those deeper reductions reflected in the annual projections?
Most forecasters assume the economy will rebound in the second half of the year, pushing emissions higher. The International Monetary Fund anticipates a 3% contraction in the global economy and a reduction in U.S. GDP of 6%. Even the IMF, which sees a worldwide contraction for the year, is projecting a rebound in the second half of 2020.
That may be optimistic.
It seems increasingly likely that lockdowns could persist in some parts of the world through 2020. Still, reductions in emissions that are anywhere close to those that occurred in March and April 2020 would be staggering.
Consider this. The Global Carbon Project estimates that global emissions increased on average 0.9% between 2010 and 2018. The U.S. has averaged reductions of 0.9% since 2005 and recorded a 2.1% decline in 2019.
So even in a scenario where emissions fell 25%, three-quarters of global CO2 output would continue during a yearlong lockdown.
2. UNLIKE PAST RECESSIONS, THE CURRENT REDUCTION IN TRANSPORTATION IS DRIVING THE DECLINE IN EMISSIONS
Normally in a recession, you’d expect CO2 reductions to be associated with declines in manufacturing and shipping, however, almost the opposite has happened this year. Shipping remains constant, and manufacturing has been slow to shut down. As Carbon Brief noted, Beijing even recorded a severe smog day during China’s lockdown. Many steel and coal plants continued to run throughout the shutdown, though often at reduced levels.
Instead, record declines in surface transportation are driving the world’s emission reductions. Rystad Energy, a Norwegian oil consultancy, estimates that traffic levels fell on every populated continent. Stating that traffic is down 54% in the United Kingdom, 36% in the United States and 19% in China.
Air travel, meanwhile, was down 40% in the 12 weeks since China reported its first 500 cases of COVID-19. In Europe, nine out of every 10 flights have been grounded.
The result has been a historic collapse in oil demand.
The global appetite for jet fuel will likely fall 65% in April and May compared with last year. In the U.S., petrol demand for the four weeks ending 17 April fell 41% compared with the same time last year, according to Department of Energy statistics.
The International Energy Agency estimates that global petroleum demand will fall by 11 million barrels a day through April 2020, the largest monthly decline on record, and another 10 million barrels a day in May.
And yet the global economy is still consuming lots of oil.
Lost amid the hubbub around oil is this: IEA still expects the world to consume 76.1 million barrels a day in the second quarter of this year.
Who’s consuming all of that crude? For starters, gasoline and jet fuel demand is down dramatically but hasn’t disappeared. U.S. refiners sent an average of 5.5 million barrels of gasoline to the market over the last four weeks.
Diesel demand is down, but its losses have been limited thanks to the strength of freight and shipping. IEA expects diesel demand in 2020 to be down 7% compared with the previous year.
Then there are petrochemicals, which have been unevenly impacted by the crisis. Plastics used in auto manufacturing are down, but plastics used for food packaging are up.
Overall, IEA thinks demand for plastic feedstocks like ethane and naphtha will decline on the year, but not to the same degree as gasoline or diesel.
The numbers illustrate just how intertwined oil is with the global economy. Cars and planes can be parked en masse, and yet widespread oil consumption continues.
The crisis shows how challenging de-carbonising the economy purely through behavioural adjustment would be, and that individual decisions about not driving or flying deliver only limited reductions in emissions.
What we need are technological solutions to our energy needs that allow our economy to operate at 100% with 5%-8% annual reductions.
3. TRANSPORTATION IS A BIG PIECE OF THE EMISSIONS PUZZLE. BUT IT’S ONLY ONE PIECE
The Global Carbon Project estimated that emissions in 2019 rose 0.6%, reaching a total of 36.8 gigatons. Transportation accounted for about 20% of those total emissions, with road transportation accounting for about half of that portion.
Emissions from coal use in China alone (7.3 gigatons) exceed global transportation emissions, excluding international air travel and shipping. Coal generation in China appears to have fallen slightly during February 2020, but it began to rebound in March, according to Carbon Brief.
Coal is being squeezed by the pandemic, but it remains crucial to electricity generation around the world.
Coal accounts for 40% of global CO2 emissions, more than any other fuel. Much like oil, coal generation is suffering during the pandemic. But also like oil, it remains a central cog in economic production worldwide.
Coal amounted to 15% of American power generation over the last month, according to Rhodium, compared with 22% at the same time last year. European coal demand is expected to fall by almost 13%, according to the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.
In India, daily figures from the national grid operator show coal generation hovering near 1.9 gigawatt-hours this (24 April 2020) week compared with 2.3 GWh last month on 24 March, the day the country went into lockdown, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the county’s power generation.
India’s coal emissions were 1.7 gigatons in 2019, according to the GCP, compared with coal emissions of 1.1 gigatons and 0.8 gigaton in the U.S. and Europe, respectively, and these figures are not reducing. So, for now, the climate will continue to struggle against its CO2 uptake.
That said, there remains a considerable amount of work to do, to even slow down by any degree future unchecked projections of atmospheric CO2. However, the affect of COVID-19, may result in more accurate atmospheric modelling, and may give us a better understanding of the fundamental control mechanisms brought about on the climate by mankind.
24 April 2020 – CO2 Update from the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, regarding possible slowdown as a result of COVID-19?
There have been many inquiries whether we can see in our CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa and elsewhere the slowdown in CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. That drop in emissions needs to be large enough to stand out from natural CO2 variability caused by how plants and soils respond to seasonal and annual variations of temperature, humidity, soil moisture, etc. These natural variations are large, and so far the “missing” emissions do not stand out, but we may see them as the year progresses. Here is an example: If emissions are lower by 25%, then we would expect the monthly mean CO2 for March at Mauna Loa to be lower by about 0.2 ppm. When we look at many years of the difference between February and March we expect March to be higher by 0.74 ppm, but the year-to-year variability (one standard deviation) of the difference is 0.40 ppm. This year the difference is 0.40 ppm, or 0.33 below average, but last year it was 0.52 ppm below average.
Most of the emissions come from urban areas, so that it may be easier to see the effect downwind of cities, although also in that case they need to stand out from natural variations. Only measurements of carbon-14 in CO2 would enable us to cleanly separate fossil sources of CO2 from ecosystem sources and sinks regardless of how variable the latter are.
History of Atmospheric CO2 – from 800,000 years ago until January 2019.