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Infectious Diseases

Updated 25 May 2020

Global lockdown restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic has cut carbon emissions by 17%

Population confinement led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions, but these extreme decreases are likely to be only temporary,

It's not just your imagination – with everyone avoiding travel, the air is cleaner these days. Daily global carbon emissions fell by about one-sixth during the coronavirus pandemic, researchers say.

But it's not likely to last.

"Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems," said study leader Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

Worldwide, daily emissions fell by 17% – or 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – during the peak of the pandemic confinement measures in early April, compared to average daily levels in 2019, the researchers found.

Many people worked at home

The last time that daily carbon dioxide emissions were this low was in 2006, according to the international team of scientists.

In individual countries, emissions decreased an average of 26% at the peak of their confinement measures.

Emissions from cars and other types of "surface transport" accounted for almost half (43%) of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement on April 7, while emissions from industry and power plants together accounted for another 43% of the decrease, the study found.

Aeroplanes accounted for 10% of the decrease in emissions during the pandemic.

There was just a slight increase in emissions from residential buildings as many people worked at home, according to the researchers.

"The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post-Covid-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come," Le Quéré said in a university news release.

Supporting walking and cycling

She said opportunities exist to make real, durable changes and be more resilient to future crises. How? "By implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement," Le Quéré said.

"For example in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for well-being and air quality than building roads, and it preserves physical distancing," she explained.

Economic stimulus packages after the pandemic must not make future carbon emissions higher by delaying new green initiatives or weakening emissions standards, Le Quéré and her colleagues warned.

The study was published on 19 May in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Image credit: iStock