Pandemic lockdowns cause record fall in emissions, but it is not all good news

A truck carting coal ash near the Conesville Power Plant in Ohio, the United States. The International Energy Agency warns that if nations try to boost their economies after the lockdowns by subsidising polluting industries like coal, greenhouse gas
A truck carting coal ash near the Conesville Power Plant in Ohio, the United States. The International Energy Agency warns that if nations try to boost their economies after the lockdowns by subsidising polluting industries like coal, greenhouse gas emissions could rebound faster than projected. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON • Global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to plunge nearly 8 per cent this year, the largest drop ever recorded, as worldwide lockdowns to fight the coronavirus have triggered an unprecedented decline in the use of fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency said in a new report yesterday.

But experts cautioned that the drop should not be seen as good news for efforts to tackle climate change. When the pandemic subsides and nations take steps to restart their economies, emissions could easily soar again unless governments make concerted efforts to shift to cleaner energy as part of their recovery efforts.

"This historic decline in emissions is happening for all the wrong reasons," said Mr Fatih Birol, the agency's executive director. He added: "People are dying and countries are suffering enormous economic trauma right now. The only way to sustainably reduce emissions is not through painful lockdowns but by putting the right energy and climate policies in place."

More than four billion people are living in countries that have imposed partial or more extensive shutdowns on economic activity to slow the spread of the virus.

By mid-April, the report found, weekly emissions in many of those countries were 17 per cent to 25 per cent lower than they were last year, as factories idled, employees stopped driving to work and airlines grounded their flights.

The agency expects many governments to start relaxing those restrictions later in the year, as China has already done and as some states are starting to do in the United States.

Even so, global carbon dioxide emissions are projected to fall by roughly 2.6 billion tonnes this year, an 8 per cent drop from last year.

That would put global emissions back at levels last seen in 2010, wiping out an entire decade of growth in the use of fossil fuels worldwide.

The projected annual drop in emissions would be six times the size of the decline seen after the global financial crisis in 2009, and a far bigger drop than at any point during the Great Depression or at the end of World War II, when much of Europe lay in ruins.

If countries remain locked down for longer than expected, or if businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic, the drop in emissions could be larger.

Conversely, if nations like China try to boost their ailing economies by weakening environmental rules or subsidising polluting industries like coal or steel, emissions could rebound even faster than projected.

That was what happened after the financial crisis: By 2010, global emissions had surged back higher than before.

"One of the big question marks now is whether countries decide to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus packages," Mr Birol said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2020, with the headline Pandemic lockdowns cause record fall in emissions, but it is not all good news. Subscribe