Forecasters are predicting that coronavirus disruptions will lead to the largest annual drop in carbon dioxide emissions ever recorded—but multiple data challenges make any such estimates extremely tentative, and without post-pandemic recovery efforts that prioritize and accelerate the zero-carbon shift, the plunge in emissions will prove nothing more than a brief pit stop on the road to climate ruin, analysts warn.
“With dozens more countries enforcing lockdowns in response to the pandemic, a wide range of indicators show how transport use, electricity demand, and industrial activity are being cut,” writes Carbon Brief. Despite this, there has to date been little research to pinpoint what it all means for global CO2 emissions. The available studies are based on “informed speculation, or on forecasts of reduced GDP growth”—problematic calculations that are not only uncertain, but also “highly uneven across sectors, potentially breaking the usual relationship between GDP and emissions.”
Case in point: while a March 2 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast that “global growth might be cut by as little as half a percentage point, to 2.4%, compared with its pre-crisis forecast of 2.9%,” notes Carbon Brief, on March 26 the OECD “dramatically revised its forecast, saying that each month of strict containment measures—‘with no offsetting factors’—would cut the increase in global economic output by around two percentage points.” Then, on April 18, the World Trade Organization (WTO) released “one of the gloomiest GDP outlooks to date,” projecting that amputated trade flows could cause global GDP to fall “by as much as 8.8% in real terms during 2020, before bouncing back with growth of 5.9% in 2021.”
Putting the numbers in perspective, Carbon Brief notes that the 2008 financial crisis produced only a 1.7% contraction in global growth.
Using past data on the relationship between GDP and CO2, Carbon Brief calculates that an 8.8% pullback, as predicted by the WTO, should lead to a “near-10%” reduction in CO2 emissions for the year—“a fall of more than 3,600 megatonnes,” it notes.
Carbon Brief’s own “bottom up” analysis, however, predicts a fall of only about 1,600 Mt in global emissions—a figure that, even at less than half the WTO’s prediction, still represents “more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.”
Currently, “five sets of data and existing analysis stand out as offering strong, timely, and quantifiable evidence of the coronavirus crisis cutting global CO2 emissions in 2020,” Carbon Brief writes. These include the economic output of the U.S. and China, the global oil sector, India’s electricity sector, and the EU carbon market—areas that, in 2018, together accounted for 76% of total emissions. This “tentative estimate” will be revised upward as “countries and sectors not yet included in the analysis can be expected to add to the total.” Carbon Brief also notes that significant caveats attend any effort to estimate the impact of the pandemic on 2020 emissions, including “timely data availability, attribution of any changes to coronavirus, and the huge uncertainty over the path and duration of the crisis.”
As for attributing any drop in fossil fuel demand in March to the ongoing pandemic, “a long list of confounding factors cloud the picture,” including “the mild winter across Europe and North America,” which reduced heating prices for industry, along with clear skies and windy weather that “boosted the output of existing wind farms and solar parks relative to last year.”
And then there are the “second-order effects”—like the Saudi Arabia–Russia contretemps that sent oil prices into freefall, and the “unprecedented nature” of the pandemic, which has made it impossible to predict in terms of duration, or the length of regional lockdowns.
Finally, whether the eventual reduction in 2020 emissions is 1,600 Mt or 3,600, either will be woefully insufficient to correct the climate crisis.
“To put the potential 2020 coronavirus effect in a broader climate context, it is worth adding that global emissions would need to fall by more than 6% every year this decade—more than 2,200 Mt—in order to limit warming to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures,” Carbon Brief writes. “If negative emissions technologies are excluded or fail to become available at scale, then the required emissions reductions for 1.5°C would be even higher, at 15% every year until 2040.”