Date posted: 18/09/2020 8 min read

The issue: COVID-19 and climate change

As COVID-19 lockdowns took hold, pollutants driving climate change dropped rapidly. But will it have any long-lasting effect?

In Brief

  • Reduced pollution levels during the pandemic do not mean much for climate change, as carbon reductions will be short-lived.
  • Following the GFC, global CO2 emissions decreased by 1.4% in 2009, only to rise by 5.9% in 2010.
  • COVID-19 lockdowns, however, have cut global oil consumption by up to 25%.

Compiled by Amity Delaney

Take a breath: Will COVID-19 clear the air?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared climate change the “defining issue of our time” in 2018. In February 2020, CA ANZ joined 13 other professional accounting organisations in signing a call to action on climate change. Most people accept that carbon emissions caused by industrial activity, deforestation and burning fossil fuels have pushed up global temperatures, resulting in more frequent severe weather events. But as COVID-19 lockdowns took hold in early 2020, much of that human activity was paused. Pollution levels dropped. Wild animals were spotted wandering the streets in nations from Argentina to the UK. Air travel plummeted 90%. But will the pandemic help put the brakes on climate change?

A corona-pause or a lasting reduction?

COVID-19 shutdowns saw dramatically reduced air pollution in many cities. Demand for oil also plummeted as travel restrictions were put in place. Researchers at the Global Carbon Project have predicted that global carbon emissions will fall by 5% in 2020. But while some people have seen this corona-pause as an opportunity to transition to less polluting forms of energy, experts are predicting a less green outcome.

Lars Peter Riishojgaard, from United Nations agency the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told an RFI reporter that "It does not mean much for climate,” as the carbon reduction would be short-lived. "The pandemic will be over at some point and the world will start going back to work and with that, the CO2 emissions will pick up again, maybe or maybe not to quite the same level."

The WMO further states that cuts in emissions triggered by COVID-19 shutdowns are not a substitute for concerted climate action.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions decreased by 1.4% in 2009, only to rise by 5.9% in 2010, according to research published in Nature Climate Change. If this formula is anything to go by, the rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic could be even worse.

The urgency to get economies back on track may see pressure to ease environmental guidelines in some nations. Poland has already called for the European Union’s emissions trading scheme to be scrapped while China has extended the deadlines for companies to meet environmental standards.

COVID-19 has also caused global meetings to address climate change to be postponed. The United Nations’ annual climate summit was scheduled for Glasgow in November 2020, with 196 countries expected to introduce new plans to meet emissions reduction targets. But with coronavirus spreading and air travel suspended, the summit has been postponed until next year.

Air quality in China before and after COVID-19 hit

Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) dropped dramatically across China in February 2020 due to coronavirus quarantines, the Lunar New Year holidays and the related economic slowdown. NASA researchers said NO2 levels in eastern and central China were 10-30% lower than usual for that time of year. Nitrogen dioxide is a greenhouse gas emitted by motor vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities, and also through the application of fertilisers.

But three months later in May, with most coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns ending in China and economic activity resuming, NO2 levels had returned to near normal for this time of year.

(map) Nitrogen dioxide levels in China drop in February 2020…

Nitrogen dioxide levels in China drop in February 2020(Click image to enlarge). Source: NASA and European Space Agency (ESA).

(map) … but rebound in May

Nitrogen dioxide levels in China in May(Click image to enlarge).Source: NASA and European Space Agency (ESA).

Growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration

Shutdown industries and reduced traffic on roads and in the air had only localised effects on carbon levels. Globally, carbon levels hit a record high of 416 parts per million (ppm) in April 2020. Global energy production – 64% from fossil fuels – deforestation and wildfires all played a part.

NB: The global carbon level has seasonal fluctuations, decreasing in the northern hemisphere summer when new foliage appears in the forests, and the vegetation absorbs more CO2.

Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration(Click image to enlarge). Graph: Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentration. Source: UN Environment Programme, environmentlive.unep.org.

How COVID-19 clipped our wings

The pandemic has changed our skies as international passenger flights are restricted to help stem the spread of coronavirus. FlightRadar24 clocked 14,629 flights globally on 1 March 2020 at 15:00 (UTC). A month later, on 31 March at 15:00, there were just 5632 flights.

Skies from Kuala Lumpur to Christchurch

Flights at 6 March 2020 at 10.00 (UTC)

Skies from Kuala Lumpur to Christchurch(Click image to enlarge). Source: FlightRadar24

Flights at 6 April 2020 at 10.00 (UTC)

Skies from Kuala Lumpur to Christchurch(Click image to enlarge). Source: FlightRadar24

Shock to oil market due to COVID-19

Usually, the world needs about 100 million barrels of oil each day. That dropped to minus 90,000 barrels a day (kb/d) when the pandemic hit, according to the International Energy Agency. Producers were left with a glut and the spot price for Brent crude tumbled from US$63.65 in January 2020 to a bottom of US$18.38 per barrel in April. But the IEA expects the demand for oil to rebound to 2.1 million barrels a day (mb/d) in 2021 as industries and travel return. Demand is expected to slow by 2025 as electric vehicles become more common and stricter efficiency standards are applied to internal combustion engines.

Source: Oil 2020, International Energy Agency.

Global oil demand growth, 2011-2025

Global oil demand growth(Click image to enlarge). Source: International Energy Agency, Global oil demand growth, 2011-2025, IEA, Paris.

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