Analysis: Biggest drop in emissions since WWII, but what comes next?


Photo credit: Ian Britton via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

Scientists are predicting that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon emissions may temporarily drop by the largest margin since World War Two. Rob Jackson, the chair of the Global Carbon Project which provides annual emission estimates, has said that carbon output could fall by more than 5% which would equate to 2.5 billion tonnes this year, this would represent the first dip beyond 1.4% since the 2008 financial crash. He said: “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two. Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings and loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is.”.

This is just one of many forecasts from climate scientists and it represents some good news in the midst of the crisis. But emissions are not declining because the world is taking action on climate change but as a result of a human health crisis in which large parts of the world has severely limited economic activity due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Roughly 3.5 million of the world’s population has so far been infected by COVID-19 with nearly 250,000 reported deaths, though both these numbers are likely to be far higher. 

Experts are warning that the emission decline is likely to be short-lived and will in the long-term have little impact. Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, UK said: “This drop is not due to structural changes so as soon as confinement ends, I expect the emissions will go back close to where they were.”

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash emissions dipped, but as the world economy recovered they shot back up by a whopping 5.1%.

And one can look at how emissions played out in China as they were the first country to enforce a lockdown due to COVID-19. The graph below illustrates how emissions dropped by an estimated 25% in the wake of the outbreak, but as China is now out of the lockdown phase emissions are back to their normal range. 


Graph credit: Carbon Brief.

Other predictions for how much emissions will decline this year has been far more conservative. In March, Glen Peters, Research Director for the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, predicted that carbon emissions would fall between 0.3% and 1.2% this year, using higher and lower forecasts for global GDP growth from the OECD. And soon after that the Breakthrough Institute, a research centre in California, predicted emissions will decline 0.5-2.2%, basing its calculations on growth forecasts from JP Morgan, and assuming the global economy recovers in the second half. Pierre Friedlingstein, chair in mathematical modelling of the climate system at the University of Exeter in southwest England said: “Even if there is a decline in emissions in 2020, let’s say 10% or 20%, it’s not negligible, it’s important, but from a climate point of view, it would be a small dent if emissions go back to pre-COVID-19 crisis levels in 2021.” 

But these are unprecedented times, no one is quite sure just how long this outbreak will last and if there will be a second wave of COVID-19 infections. 

The world currently depends on fossil fuels for 80% of its energy. Emissions forecasts are often based on projections for economic growth. A UN report released last year details that emissions would have to consistently decline by 7.6% per year to give the world a viable chance of staying below 1.5 degrees C temperature rise, the most ambitious Paris goal. 

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