Coal fired power plant in China, Henan Province
A major coal-fired power plant in China’s Henan Province. Photo: © VCG

Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change

In this article we examine what impact the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have on greenhouse gas emissions during the global economic shutdown. We look at the short-term effect of COVID-19 on climate change including the demand for fossil fuels, especially in the area of transport. And we also assess what the long-term effect of COVID-19 on climate change might be, taking into account the new popular mood.

Will the fallout from the lockdowns help us to close the so-called emissions gap, or will the world return to ‘business as normal’?

Effects of COVID-19 Will Be Influenced by 2 Other Factors

Any collective effort to tackle our climate crisis in a post-COVID world is likely to be heavily influenced by two factors: the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and the distribution of an effective anti-COVID vaccine. Nothing is certain until these two issues are resolved.

Carbon dioxide emissions by country, showing which countries are causing the most global warming.
The world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. Image: © BBC. Data source: EC. Emissions database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), 2018.

The Effect of Coronavirus on Climate Change Varies Country by Country

When it comes to global warming, not all countries are alike: some emit much higher quantities of greenhouse gases than others. This means that the policies and practices of certain governments have a much greater impact on our climate system than others.

For example, China alone produces almost 30 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while the top 6 emitters (China, USA, India, Russia, Japan, Germany) account for around 60 percent.

So, if the COVID-19 pandemic persuades (say) China, or the United States, to rebuild its economy in a greener, more environmentally friendly way, it’ll have a much bigger effect than if (say) Denmark or Fiji does the same.

The Short-Term Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change

The coronavirus pandemic caused the most dramatic economic crash that the world has ever seen. It started in China, where the industrial shutdown was so severe that some inhabitants were amazed to see clean blue skies. From China, the coronavirus rapidly invaded Europe and then North America, triggering further factory shutdowns and plant closures. Emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide dropped significantly.

The Global Carbon Project research group says that the peak fall occurred in early April 2020, when global emissions tumbled by 17 percent, compared with 2019 levels.

For example, in the United States, daily CO2 emissions dropped by a third; the same happened in India, while in China emissions were down by 25 percent.

But the rebound came quickly. By early June, European and Indian emissions had returned to within 5 percent of 2019 levels (7 percent in America). The rapidity of the recovery took even experienced observers by surprise.

China's greenhouse gas emissions surge after lockdowns lifted, showing the effect of Covid-19 on global warming may be shortlived.
Monthly CO2 emissions in China from fossil fuels and the cement industry, in millions of tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2). emissions for 2019 in blue, for 2020 in red. They show that the effect of COVID-19 on climate change is already diminishing. Source: CREA analysis of data from WIND Information and China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts. Image: © Carbon Brief 1

China

An analysis of new Chinese government data by Carbon Brief, reveals that China’s emissions, too, have bounced back from the 25 percent collapse they suffered during the coronavirus lockdown, rising by 4-5 percent (year-on-year) in May. The rebound was driven by coal power, cement emissions and those of other heavy industries.

The recovery has been so rapid that coal production is forecast to drop by as little as 1 percent in 2020 ,while, according to the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, Chinese demand for oil will rebound to near normal levels in the second quarter of 2020.

What’s more, air pollution over China has already returned to pre-lockdown levels. According to data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across China are now the same as one year ago. Initially, following the coronavirus lockdown, NO2 levels were down by 38 percent (year-on-year) and levels of PM2.5 were down by a third. In Wuhan, for instance, where coronavirus started, NO2 levels are now just 14 percent lower (year-on-year), having briefly dropped by almost half. In Shanghai, NO2 levels are already 9 percent higher than 2019. 1

2020 As a Whole

According to several sets of experts, the COVID-19 shutdown will reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by up to 8 percent in 2020, compared with 2019. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is forecasting a contraction of 8 percent, to levels last seen a decade ago. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates a drop of between 6 and 8 percent, while Carbon Brief expects a fall of 4 to 8 percent.

Meantime, globally, the IEA calculates that COVID-19 at its peak reduced electricity demand by about 20 percent (year-on-year). Across 2020 as a whole, it predicts a reduction of about 5 percent. The reduction in electricity consumption is expected to depress demand for coal by about 8 percent in 2020.

Meantime, in April 2020, during the peak fall in emissions, scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported the highest ever concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere – 416.18 ppm. 2 Which serves as a timely reminder that CO2 is a long-lived gas, and that Earth will continue to heat up as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels. In fact, roughly 20 percent of the CO2 we emit today could still be warming the planet in a thousand years time.

British Airway planes stand idle during Covid-19
British Airways planes stand idle in the United Kingdom, waiting for the coronavirus travel slump to end. Photo: © SWNS:South West News Service.

Travel Emissions

Travel emissions have slumped dramatically because of the coronavirus. The IEA estimate that global road transport activity slumped by 50 percent in March 2020, compared to March 2019.

Other independent studies have shown that 4 billion people slashed their travel by more than 50 percent in April alone, when globally averaged CO2 and nitrogen oxide travel-related emissions fell by around 30 percent, mainly due to a decline in car driving.

This reduction in travel has led to a corresponding fall in the use of petroleum and diesel products. According to Rystad Energy, an independent research firm, 2020 will average 10 million barrels of oil per day less than in 2019. This compares to a fall of 1.3 million barrels per day during the recession of 2009. Demand for aviation fuel is down by about 65 percent.

Air travel has suffered an even bigger fall. In Europe, about 90 percent of flights have been cancelled; in the United States, around 50 percent. However, while air travel accounts for less than 3 percent of global emissions, cars and trucks account for about 30 percent – ten times as much.

However, one study has uncovered some less-welcome data. First, it found that the beneficial effect of fewer emissions will be largely counterbalanced by a 20 percent fall in industrial sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions, which also occurred in April. SO2 emissions rise into the atmosphere, where they are converted into sulfur aerosols which reflect sunlight and thus have a cooling effect on the planet.

In other words, fewer SO2 emissions lead to more solar energy reaching the surface of the planet, and thus higher temperatures. 3 If this is true, any positive effect of Covid-19 on climate change is likely to be extremely short-lived.

Global CO2 emissions 1900 to present. It shows the positive effect of Covid-19 on global warming is not likely to endure.
Graph showing relentless rise of global CO2 emissions despite periodic falls in industrial output. During the financial crash of 2008-2009, carbon emissions only fell by around 450 million tonnes, quite a bit smaller than the fall of 800 million tonnes of CO2 immediately following World War II. It is also smaller than the global recession in the early 1980s that followed the oil crisis of the late 1970s. During this period, CO2 went down by around one billion tonnes. The largest sustained reduction in CO2 emissions – 7.6 billion tonnes – occurred following the collapse of the Soviet Union during the period 1992-2011. None of these collapses did much to slow down the rise of CO2 emissions. 4 Image: © Global Carbon Project CDIAC & IEA / BBC 5

According to the above Forster study, the huge reduction in CO2 emissions during the month of April will cool the globe by a mere 0.01 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030. It will have little impact on the world’s CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, or on global temperature projections. In fact, 2020 is on track to be the hottest year in history.

Therefore, the effect of COVID-19 on climate change is likely to be negligible unless it results in dramatic investment in forms of renewable energy, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies. 6

Another study takes a different view. It anticipates an overall reduction in annual emissions during 2020 of about 5.3 percent, which is similar to the reduction of 5.7 percent proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 7

The problem is, both the IMF and EIA are predicting that CO2 emissions will rebound by +5.8 percent (world economy) and +3.5 percent (US economy) in 2021. In other words, most if not all the reduction achieved during COVID-19 lockdowns will be rapidly erased by a global economic rebound.

China’s Carbon Neutral Pledge

Right now, the chances of creating any type of international understanding on climate change between the 3 big players – China, the United States and Russia – seem remote. All three are addicted to fossil fuels and their own nationalist agendas.

That said, China’s recent pledge to reach “peak carbon” before 2030, and drive down emissions to virtually zero by 2060, looks like an amazing breakthrough. As a sign of new possibilities on offer from the world’s largest emitter, it’s an offer we can’t ignore.

The Climate Action Tracker research group estimates that if China manages to deliver on this pledge, it will cut global temperature projections by 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius, down to around 2.4 to 2.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialised levels. This would represent a stunning achievement. 8

Whether President Xi Jinping’s announcement was an opportunistic attempt to seize the moral high ground of climate diplomacy, or a carefully thought out proposal, is likely to remain unclear for some time. But one thing is clear: in order to achieve carbon neutrality, Xi Jinping will have to turn China’s energy policy upside down.

Right now, fossil fuels and nuclear power provide around 85 percent of China’s energy, with renewable energy accounting for the rest. What’s more, to rejuvenate the economy following the coronavirus shutdown in January, China is ramping up its energy supply by introducing a raft of new coal-fired power plants. Coal is still by far the largest source of primary energy in China, and according to think tank Global Energy Monitor, the number of coal-fired plants China approved in the first three weeks of March 2020 (total capacity 7,960 megawatts) exceeded the number approved in the whole of 2019 (total capacity 6,310 megawatts).

Map of Chinese One Belt and One Road Initiative. Chinese investments include numerous coal-fired power plants. This shows that the effect of Covid-19 on global warming may be less significant that we expect.
Map showing President Xi Jinping’s One Belt and One Road initiative, an infrastructure development plan initiated by the Chinese government in 2013, involving nearly 70 countries, mainly in Asia and Africa. Source: McKinsey Company

In addition, China maintains an estimated $1 trillion investment in its “Belt and Road” diplomatic initiative across parts of Asia and Africa, which is dominated by huge, carbon-intensive infrastructure projects which consume vast quantities of high-emission cement and steel.

According to a Boston University database, China has invested more than $50 billion in overseas coal-fired power plants since 2000, and last year, Edward Cunningham, a Harvard University specialist on China and its energy markets, warned that China was building or planning more than 300 coal-fired power plants in places as far apart as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines. 9

The scale of change required in all sectors of Chinese industry – especially notorious high-emission sectors such as power generation, cement, steel, chemicals and smelting – is almost too enormous to contemplate. Only time will tell how serious the Chinese are.

Long Term Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change

The main impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the economic shutdown. Within a matter of weeks, the global economy was brought to its knees. All over the world, political leaders were suddenly exposed by their ignorance of how viruses work, their government’s lack of preparedness and their inability to keep their citizens safe. When faced by a genuinely global threat, the world appeared helpless. Even now in October 2020, all we can do is wait patiently for someone to produce an effective vaccine.

The trouble is, there’s no vaccine to combat global warming. Which is why – as we look ahead at the costly task of reshaping industries and rebuilding markets – people are saying that any public investment in reconstruction should be environmentally friendly, and incorporate greener standards. They say that now is the ideal opportunity for governments to demand greener standards, when they have maximum leverage owing to the fact that so many companies need financial support.

If we slip back into business-as-usual mode, and continue to subsidize the old, dirty fuels, the costs of climate change adaptation alone are likely to dwarf any serious investment in green technologies.

Just 2 years’ worth of Californian wildfires (2018 and 2020) are likely to cost the United States economy around $40 billion, while the cost of an average hurricane is $21.6 billion. 10 11 12

Even these costs are likely to be dwarfed by the trillions of dollars involved in building extra sea walls and relocating coastal communities. Besides, sea walls are usually made of concrete, a major ingredient of which is cement. And as we know, the cement industry is notorious for its enormous emissions of carbon dioxide. At present, they account for around 8 percent of all global fossil fuel emissions.

So, the cement emissions from the concrete used to build the sea walls will add to global warming and thus sea level rise, necessitating more walls, more cement, and so on. Surely it makes more sense to spend that money developing renewable energies that don’t cause rising seas, and ever higher storm surges.

Of course, in reality, money isn’t a serious obstacle to saving Planet Earth, not after we managed to pay out so much to rejuvenate the economy after the coronavirus crash. According to the World Economic Forum, the COVID-19 pandemic will end up costing between $8.1 and $15.8 trillion globally. Surely the planet itself has to be worth this and more.

Besides, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) says that investing in renewable energies and technologies will bring net GDP gains of almost $100 trillion (£80tn) between now and 2050.

Bottom line: the only sensible option is to invest in measures likely to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which will reduce the rate of global warming and save us from the worst economic and humanitarian consequences. It will also spare the lives of billions of animals, with whom we share the planet. See also: Effects of Climate Change on Animals.

Graph: How much greenhouse gas emissions need to fall
Graph showing how steeply CO2 emissions need to fall in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Image: © Glen Peters, IAMC, IIASA / BBC 13

What is Needed: The Basics

In order to tackle global warming, the most important task is to reduce our use of coal, oil and natural gas. Even though natural gas is cleaner than (say) coal, it still emits a large amount of methane in pipeline seepage alone.

In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions must fall by at least 7.6 percent every year until 2050. 14 In other words, broadly speaking, we need the equivalent of a Covid-19 lockdown every year until 2050.

Alternatively, in order to limit global warming to 2°C, CO2 emissions must fall by 25 percent by 2030, and to ‘net zero’ by 2075. 15 Again, this requires a major reform of our energy system, in particular how we power industry, how we fuel our cars and trucks, and how we heat our homes.

As well as swapping our regular petrol and diesel cars for electric vehicles, which necessitates greener electricity storage technology and a proper roll-out of charging points, we need to rebuild and reorganize the layout of our cities, so that not having cars becomes easier.

Also, people will need to congregate in large metropolitan areas so that services can be delivered more easily and efficiently.

All these things need national and local government involvement, illustrating the fact that a low-carbon society can’t be achieved by individual action alone. It requires centrally organized structural changes that are likely to impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

Greenhouse gas emissions during covid 19 lockdown, featuring sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Trends in emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, during the early Covid-19 lockdowns (2020). See also: Greenhouse Gas Statistics. Image: © Forster et al, 2020

5 Reasons Why the Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change Will Be Negligible

In case you thought that tackling climate change was going to be easy, now that we’ve all marvelled at the blue skies and clean air during the COVID-19 lockdowns, let me list 5 reasons why climate action will be less popular after COVID-19 than it was beforehand.

1. Not Interested in Climate Change for the Moment, Thanks

By the end of 2020, a huge number of people are going to be sick and tired of COVID-19 and its lockdowns. Many have suffered isolation from family, lack of contact with friends, lack of romance, inactivity and boredom, lack of fun, disempowerment, domestic claustrophobia, blighted studies and careers, as well as a general feeling of frustration compounded by being told what to do by remote governments.

As a result, when the pandemic finally declines, perhaps in late 2021, most people will be in no mood to be told they can’t hop on a plane, or buy a new car, or eat meat, or buy lots of fast fashion, simply to limit the effects of global warming. They have suffered enough: now it’s time to party.

At the same time, tens of millions of unemployed workers are going to be more interested in finding jobs than worrying about the green credentials of their employer.

In addition, greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 are likely to show a clear reduction compared to 2019 figures, which may deflate some of the urgency of climate action, and simply feed the climate change denial movement.

Examined from this viewpoint, the effect of COVID-19 on climate change does not seem to be terribly positive, at least in the short-term.

2. Climate Change is Even More Depressing than COVID-19

Just like the coronavirus, climate change is invisible, global and potentially deadly. Individuals are to a large extent helpless in the face of it. It is profoundly depressing and disempowering, not least because it raises the distinct possibility that henceforth life is going to be less fun. (Less travel, less consumption, less meat, and so on.)

No one has ever successfully sold a product or an idea, on the basis that it makes life less fun.

No doubt future generations may be persuaded into accepting the need for reduced consumption, but the present generations are not likely to be favorably disposed, and they hold the power.

From this viewpoint, also, the effect of COVID-19 on climate change looks to be distinctly negative.

3. The COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Us that Cooperation is a Mirage

Although doctors have cooperated with their foreign counterparts from the beginning of the pandemic, political leaders have been slow to follow suit.

First, China clamps down on news of the virus. Then it denies the likelihood of human transmission. Not until much later does the Chinese leadership admit the truth. Even when it does, Europe and America downplay it. Then, as casualties mount, they compete for supplies of personal protective equipment.

America then accuses China of deliberately releasing the coronavirus and blames the World Health Organization (WHO) for incompetence. As possible vaccines emerge, countries start aggressively buying up all possible supplies with no thought for anyone but themselves. The WHO’s call for a share-out of vaccines goes unheeded.

Given these selfish attitudes, the effect of COVID-19 on climate change doesn’t look to be very positive. If we can’t share a vaccine, how realistic is it to suppose that we can forge an international agreement to share the burdens of climate change?

Power Station in western Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Kusile Power Station in western Mpumalanga, South Africa. A total of 35 new coal mines are required to support the Kusile plant and its sister plant at Medupi. Image: © JMK. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

4. Who Wants to be a Loser?

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has roughly $1.2 trillion worth of oil reserves and $145.4 billion worth of natural gas reserves. If fossil fuels become unusable and therefore worthless, he won’t be happy.

How are we to persuade President Putin and other fossil fuel owners like him, to erase the value of their country’s assets? How can we convince them to lose all that money?

If we can’t come up with a reasonable answer to this question, we can kiss goodbye to the sort of international climate agreement that we need – that is, one that supervises the renunciation of fossil fuels.

Someone has to compensate fossil fuel owners or else they will continue to market their products around the world. So, who will it be? Or maybe a better question is, who can afford to pay compensation?

South Africa is another case in point. Currently, more than 90 percent of its energy comes from from coal, but the government has approved a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. How exactly they intend to achieve this is unclear, since new coal fired power plants are shortly to come on stream. South Africa is a good example of where green finance is desperately needed. But who will pay?

It’s easy to vote against fossil fuels in the United Nations, but pledging billions of your citizens tax money to bail out President Putin or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, or Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin Salman, might be a step too far for many leaders. Climate activists don’t have to deal with these issues: political leaders do.

It’s possible that public support for climate action may increase, once the pandemic winds down, but it’s not likely to persuade the Oil & Gas moguls to close their wells and start building windmills instead.

5. What Actually Drives Climate Action?

Let’s take America and China as examples, after all between them they control around 40 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.

In America, public opinion about climate and energy issues divides largely along political party and ideological lines. Except few voters in either party like paying taxes, as George Bush found out in the 1992 US Presidential election when his “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge came back to haunt him.

So, even though America has a large number of citizens who care about the planet, it’s doubtful that a majority are going to support the large tax increases that will be necessary to finance America’s share of the climate burden.

Another reason why Americans are unlikely to support the necessary climate action, is because (as well as financing its full share of the costs of climate action) they will also need to reduce their consumption. Think fewer trips, less air travel, fewer shopping splurges – or maybe just recall a COVID-19 lockdown!

This is when the sheer complexity of climate change may prove fatal. Because no US politician is going to be able to say with any certainty what these sacrifices will yield in the way of climate benefits. Meanwhile, this uncertainty will feed the climate deniers, ably assisted by fossil fuel companies lurking in the background.

China is a different story. No worries about public opinion here. Except for the smog. (When I visited the Chinese city of Chongqing (pop: 30 million) two years ago, my hosts told me they hadn’t seen blue skies for years.)

The smog has become a major headache for the Chinese Communist Party because its health effects are widespread and it can’t be controlled. And if the Party is responsible for everything (as it claims to be) it’s also responsible for smog.

Which may be why China is currently emitting a number of contradictory signals about coal and coal-fired power plants.

Some Chinese organizations are commissioning more coal plants, some are being told to cut back. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative is investing heavily in coal-based energy plants abroad, while at home President Xi Jinping is pledging carbon neutrality by 2160.

Do these contradictions signal policy rivalries, or are they merely bureaucratic misalignments. Outside of Zhongnanhai, no one knows.

If smog is the driving force, then the Chinese will no doubt fix the problem in due course, although this could mean simply shifting the smog to more remote, less-populated regions. After all, satellites continue to identify plumes of banned chemicals emanating from sources inside the country, so the Chinese road is not always straight, to quote a little-known Chinese proverb.

Meantime, China needs to stop ordering new coal-fired power plants, because these plants drive the coal industry, which drives a large chunk of global warming.

We may yet experience a brave, new post-coronavirus world with a new, positive approach to climate change, but first let’s wait for the coal dust to settle.

References

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  2. “CO2 Earth.” []
  3. “Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19.” Forster, P.M., Forster, H.I., Evans, M.J. et al. Nat. Clim. Change. (2020). []
  4. “How the Soviet collapse cut greenhouse gas emissions.” June 2019. []
  5. “Climate change and coronavirus: Five charts about the biggest carbon crash.” []
  6. “Drop in Emissions During COVID Will Have No Effect on Climate.” []
  7. “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement.” Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020). []
  8. “China going carbon neutral before 2060 would lower warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C.” []
  9. “Why Is China Placing A Global Bet on Coal?” Steve Inskeep, Ashley Westerman. NPR. April 29, 2019. []
  10. “California Fire Damage Estimated at $25.4 Billion.” By Nic Querolo and Brian K Sullivan. October 28, 2019. []
  11. “West Coast fires will cost US economy dearly.” DW. []
  12. USA Today Sept 12, 2018 []
  13. “Climate change and coronavirus: Five charts about the biggest carbon crash.” []
  14. “Emissions Gap Report 2019.” United Nations. []
  15. “IPCC issues Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.” World Meteorological Organization (WMO). []
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