If you can rely on humanity to do anything consistently, it’s to spew more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. Even after the world’s nations signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, each setting their own targets to rein in emissions—India, for instance, pledging to cut theirs by a third by 2030—still they tick up a few percent each year. But then came Covid-19, which has crippled economies and trapped people at home and finally realized the dream of the Paris Agreement—and then some.
Writing today in Nature Climate Change, researchers detail that by early April, daily global CO2 emissions had plummeted by 17 percent compared to mean 2019 levels. Some regions, like the United States and the United Kingdom, have seen their emissions fall by a third, due in large part to people driving less. Projecting forward, the researchers calculate that even if confinement measures are relaxed a bit, this year we could see a 7 percent drop overall in global emissions, more than double the 3 percent drop following the 2008 financial crisis.
Getting at these figures takes a whole lot of digging through data, because scientists can’t just train a satellite at the planet and get CO2 emissions in real-time. “Because CO2 stays in the atmosphere a long, long time, even though we had a massive change in emissions, that did not affect the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere very much,” says climate scientist Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, lead author on the paper. “It’s small compared to what we’ve put in the atmosphere for decades.”
Plus, that CO2 signal is muddied by Earth’s natural processes, like trees sucking in the gas and expelling oxygen. And with a satellite, you can’t measure levels of a gas at the surface rather than what you would find a mile in the air. “We’re measuring a whole column amount of CO2,” says Northern Arizona University climate scientist Kevin Gurney, who models emissions but wasn’t involved in this new work. “It’s not a flux at the surface. It’s just a big cross-section of the number of molecules in the atmosphere.”
So Le Quéré and her colleagues waded through mountains of reported data instead. They looked at statistics about car traffic, electricity usage, airline flights, and manufacturing, building a global picture of how the pandemic has cut emissions. Each sector comes with its own unique dynamics: Air traffic has of course plummeted, but that industry only accounts for 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in a normal year.
Each country’s emissions patterns are unique, too. For example, China’s economy is heavy on manufacturing, which shut down early as the virus took hold. China has seen carbon dioxide emissions drop by 242 megatons, compared to 207 megatons in the US, and 123 throughout Europe. Activity in China’s coal production fell between 30 and 40 percent—mirrored by a similarly-sized drop in the US, but in steel production. The US also nurtures a big service industry that allows people to work remotely, in a sense shifting the electricity usage from offices into homes. Residential energy use also ticked up a bit in the UK as people sheltered in place. (But to make the energy calculus even more complex, when people work from home, that also means they’re not sitting in traffic generating more tailpipe CO2.)
All told, the decrease in global emissions during the pandemic has been precipitous. But in the grand scheme of things, emissions have been increasing so reliably since … well, pretty much the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that so far Covid-19 is but a blip on that upward trajectory. “The biggest decrease we had in one day takes us back only to 2006 levels,” says Le Quéré. “So this is really showing just how much emissions are increasing through time every year. This incredible drop in emissions only takes us back 14 years.”
Also, to avoid the very worst effects of climate change—more intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and fiercer hurricanes and wildfires—we as a species have to cut greenhouse gas emissions entirely. Like, yesterday. “How on Earth are we going to succeed in bringing emissions down to zero when you see what it takes now to bring the emissions down 17 percent?” asks Le Quéré. “I mean, this is not the way to tackle climate change—a forced, unpleasant confinement.”
But perhaps working from home is showing us a way forward. The pandemic has made it clear that not all of us have to commute to an office every day. Air travel may account for a small fraction of global CO2 emissions, but maybe not all events, like conferences, have to be in-person. Maybe we should keep closing streets to cars, giving pedestrians room to wanderand opening up space so restaurants can operate while keeping people further apart.
Think back to the 2008 financial crisis, when the Obama administration juiced the economy by pumping money into renewable energies. Perhaps now we can do the same for electric cars. “The whole industry is kind of on the cusp of being able to strive on its own, but not yet there,” says Le Quéré. Investing in the infrastructure to electrify transportation, like charging stations, “will make a huge difference,” she says.
Plus, adds Gurney, this is a singular moment in human history that, for all its terrors, gives climate scientists a unique opportunity to watch emissions plummet in real time, honing their monitoring methods. The mobilization against the pandemic is a striking metaphor for what we can, and must, do to fight climate change. “Climate change became such a politically-fraught issue and the dividing lines looked like the typical US tribal dividing lines,” Gurney says. “And this shows that we can cut across it. That’s a bright side to this story.”