Coronavirus: Lockdown emissions drop dramatically but it's having little impact on climate change, say scientists

19 May 2020, 15:24 | Updated: 19 May 2020, 17:30

Carbon emissions have dropped dramatically in response to the pandemic lockdown - but it's unlikely to have a lasting effect on climate change, scientists say.

New research has estimated emissions at the peak of the global economic shutdown in early April were 17 million tonnes a day lower than the average for 2019 - a fall of 17%.

That is roughly the level last seen in 2006.

The analysis shows that if the shutdown lasts until mid-June, overall emissions for 2020 would be around 4% lower than last year.

Delaying the resumption of normal economic activity to the end of the year would lead to a bigger fall of 7%.

But lead author Professor Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia, told Sky News that the drop will have little impact on climate change.

"Nothing has changed around us," she said. "We still have cars, industry and gas boilers.

"This forced confinement is not the way to tackle climate change.

"We need a much larger effort to move away from fossil energy and use less energy in the future."

The total decrease in emissions up to the end of April was one billion tonnes, the analysis shows.

That compares to total carbon emissions in 2019 of 37 billiion tonnes.

China had the largest drop, 242 million tonnes, followed by the US with 207 million tonnes. The UK's drop was 18 million tonnes.

Professor Le Quéré said the decrease in emissions would need to be repeated year on year for decades to keep global temperature rises close to 1.5C, as agreed by world leaders in Paris in 2015.

"We cannot lock down people," she said.

"But if countries can line up their economic recovery with climate ambitions it could make a big difference to meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement."

The research, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, accounted for 43% of the total decrease.

Another 43% was due to reduced industrial output and lower power generation.

But, despite aviation being perceived as a major polluter, in fact the grounding of most aircraft accounted for just 10% of the overall drop.

Professor Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the Met Office, said the pandemic would account for just a small blip in the long-term upward trend in greenhouse gases.

"We are still adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere," he said.

"It will perhaps go up slightly less than it would do otherwise.

"But we are already at record levels for the last two million years at least."

Another study, by scientists at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at the University of Reading, found that carbon dioxide emissions in London have fallen by 60% during the lockdown.

Measurements from the BT Tower show emissions dropped significantly between the start of the lockdown on 23 March and the first week of May.

Professor Dave Reay, of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, University of Edinburgh, said: "This is sobering stuff.

"The shuttered shops and Zoom-lit kitchens, the empty skies and silent roads, all those billions of lockdown sacrifices and privations have made just a small and likely transient dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.

"Yet climate change has not stopped, it remains the greatest threat to our civilisation in the 21st century and the next few years will define our climate future for generations to come.

"Whether 2020 will be a brief and savage emissions dip, before a fossil-fuelled surge back to business as usual in the climate emergency is still unclear.

"What is clear is that, without a green recovery from COVID, the sacrifices and privations of lockdown are but a taste of the climate change impacts all humanity will face."

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Dr Joeri Rogelj, lecturer in climate change and environment at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said the pandemic was an opportunity to reset the economy.

"Massive economic stimulus measures are now being announced and there is a high risk that short-sightedness will lead to governments losing track of the bigger picture, for example, by putting their money towards highly polluting sectors that have no place in a zero-pollution and zero-carbon society.

"Such poorly informed decisions would severely set back the transition towards a sustainable future.

"It is thus up to citizens worldwide to demand of their governments that they invest in climate-positive sectors in pursuit of resilient and sustainable future societies."