Lockdown emissions and the potential for a green recovery

21 August, 2020 | Megan Jones
Categories: Climate Change, COVID-19

Emission reductions caused by COVID-19 restrictions

From early 2020, when lockdowns were enforced to slow the spread of COVID-19, the effects of reduced emissions were witnessed all over the world. News stories of reduced air pollution in China and clear waterways in Venice circulated the internet.

One study found that during the peak of global confinements, CO2 emissions were reduced by 17% worldwide and the peak emission reduction of individual countries averaged -26%. In the UK, flights reduced by 90% since the UK went into lockdown and road traffic declined by 73% at its peak in late March, to levels not seen since 1955. Very similar trends were seen all over the world.

At first glance it may appear likely that these considerable declines in emission production would make a significant impact on climate change. However, as CO2 is long lasting in the atmosphere, net emissions would need to reach zero before the current situation is improved. In May this year, amidst the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns, the global atmospheric CO2 reached the highest concentration ever recorded at 417ppm.

Despite the huge reduction in emissions observed, now that restrictions are being lifted and life is returning to normal in many countries, this short period may be referred to as a blip. For example, China saw a 25% decline in CO2 emission production at the beginning of 2020 but levels rapidly rebounded and were back normal by June. This fast rebound in emissions is suggested to have been driven by coal power, cement and other heavy industries restarting faster than other sectors of the economy.

A recent analysis suggested that the reduction in emissions caused by lockdown restrictions has had little impact, resulting in global atmospheric CO2 being only 0.4ppm lower than it would have been. Another study suggests that the reduced emissions observed in 2020 may result in the global temperature on Earth to be 0.01oC lower in 2030 than was estimated pre-lockdown.

The potential for a Green Recovery

However, there are a number of ways in which the past 6 months have changed the world, making it the best time in recent history to construct a green future.

The global population has witnessed the huge potential of behavioural changes on emission production and our ability to reverse damage which has been done to the environment. Additionally, governments will have a choice on how to recover post-pandemic through which companies they decide to support and where funding is directed.

For example, France and Austria have attached “green strings” to their airline bailout packages such as halving CO2 emissions by 2030. These conditions also include imposing flight taxes which are increased on flights under 217 miles, minimum ticket prices and requiring airlines to redirect passenger traffic to rail services when the journey would take less than three hours.

A recent study estimated that if funding replicates that following the financial crisis in 2008, with major support for fossil fuel industries, global temperatures are predicted to rise by 0.6oC by 2050. The average global temperature is currently 1.1oC above pre-industrial levels, meaning that this increase would exceed the 1.5oC target. However, the study also estimates that if governments support a green recovery with funding directed towards clean and renewable sources of energy, there is a 55% chance of a 0.3oC increase by 2050, remaining below 1.5oC.

Many countries have already made decisions to rebuild in a greener way, taking advantage of behavioural changes which occurred during the pandemic.

Travelling on crowded public transport became much less appealing in 2020, leading to a huge increase in people deciding to walk or cycle. In response, many cities are renovating their road layouts which will also help to reduce car traffic and air pollution in the long-term. For example, Milan has announced The Strade Aperte plan which will transform 35km of the cities streets with the expansion of cycling and walking space to allow social distancing to continue as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

France has created a €20 million scheme under which everyone is eligible for bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics. Similar schemes providing incentives for people to buy and maintain bicycles have been seen in other countries including the UK.

Working from home has also been hugely popular and successful, providing people with more time and money whilst reducing emissions. These benefits suggest that working from home, at least part time, may remain popular in the future. A recent study by CIPD estimated that 37% employees will be working from home on a regular basis once the crisis is over, compared to just 18% who did so before lockdown. 

Air travel is predicted to remain relatively low for some time but is likely to rise as the global threat of COVID-19 declines.

Please note, all sources for the information used to inform this report have been referenced throughout. CO2balance does not claim ownership of nor has modified any of the information used.