Carbon Emissions Have Dropped 17 Percent Globally During The Coronavirus Pandemic

A truck passes by the BP refinery on January 08, 2019 in Whiting, Indiana. Despite the closing of a large number of coal-fired power plants, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States rose 3.4 percent last year
Scott Olson / Getty Images

A new study published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change found that global carbon emissions have decreased by 17 percent during the coronavirus pandemic. The study compared daily carbon emission averages from April 2020 to the numbers from April 2019, showing what could be the largest decline in the history of tracking this data.

Corinne Le Quéré, a U.K.-based professor of climate change science who co-authored the study, said that a drop in emissions like the one the world is seeing now hasn’t been seen in over 50 years.

“Globally, we haven’t seen a drop this big ever, and at the yearly level, you would have to go back to World War II to see such a big drop in emissions.”

With most of the world under some version of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, daily behaviors have changed on a global scale. The study found that these behavior changes have contributed to the overall decline in carbon emissions and could result in a 7 percent decline in yearly carbon emissions, NBC News reported.

According to NBC News, the study also analyzed which behavior changes have made the biggest impact on decreasing carbon emissions. The biggest contributor to the decline was attributed to the decrease in daily road traffic. Fewer cars, trucks, and buses on the roads accounted for 43 percent of the total decline in carbon emissions. Emissions from industrial activity have dropped 19 percent as a result of economies shutting down. Though emissions from air travel fell a staggering 60 percent with far fewer people traveling by plane, this decline made up for a smaller percentage of the overall decrease in carbon emissions because air travel accounts for less than 3 percent of total carbon emissions.

Though these declining numbers are encouraging, Le Quéré told NBC News that it’s unlikely the decrease in carbon emissions will continue once economies reopen, which means that the decline won’t have a significant longterm impact.

“This is not the way to tackle climate change — it’s not going to happen by forcing behavior changes on people,” Le Quéré said. “We need to tackle it by helping people move to more sustainable ways of living.”

The 17 percent global decline reported by the study only lasted for about two weeks, while the majority of countries were at the height of their strictest lockdowns, NBC News reported. As countries open back up, carbon emissions will start to rise again.

According to NBC News, it remains to be seen how this sharp decline in carbon emissions for a compacted period of time will impact the yearly decrease in carbon emissions. If social distancing measures continue for an extended period of time, forcing people to continue to work from home and requiring some businesses to remain closed, yearly carbon emissions could decline as much as 7 percent. If countries open their economies more quickly, yearly carbon emissions may only decrease by 4 percent.