We are living in the greatest carbon accident ever recorded.
No war, no recession, no previous pandemic has had as dramatic an impact on CO2 emissions over the past century as Covid-19 in a few months.
Multiple sources indicate that we are currently experiencing an unparalleled decline in carbon production.
But even if we witness a massive fall this year, atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global warming will not stabilize until the world reaches zero.
As our graph shows, since the Spanish flu killed millions over 100 years ago, the global expansion of CO2 emissions from the use of oil, gas and coal has increased massively.
While these sources of energy have transformed the world, the carbon that infiltrates our atmosphere has raised global temperatures by just over 1 ° C since the mid-1850s.
They could increase by 3-4 ° C by the end of this century if the CO2 levels are not brutally reduced.
Over the past 100 years, as the graph shows, a number of events have shown that dramatic carbon losses are possible.
The 2008-2009 financial crash is largely devoted, but in reality, carbon emissions only decreased by around 450 million tonnes between 2008 and 2009.
This is much less than the drop in CO2 after the Second World War, which fell by around 800 million tonnes.
It is also less than the global recession of the early 1980s that followed the oil crisis of the late 1970s.
During this period, CO2 has dropped by about one billion tonnes.
But the 2020 coronavirus pandemic far overshadows all of these previous shocks.
Within a few months, global demand for energy had fallen from a cliff.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the world will use 6% less this year, which is equivalent to losing all of India’s energy demand.
This will result in significant CO2 drops.
A number of different analyzes, including that of Carbon Brief, show that this year’s emissions will drop by 4 to 8%, between 2 and 3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases.
This is between six and ten times more than during the last global recession.
We travel less
By plane and by road, the world has greatly reduced its travel.
The complete closings have also reduced global demand for electricity by 20% or more, according to the IEA.
Throughout the year, the need for electricity will decrease by 5% – the largest decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“This is a historic shock for the entire energy world,” said Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA.
Developments in energy demand will have a knock-on effect on global demand for coal, which is expected to fall 8% this year.
China being the first country to slow down its economy in response to the virus, coal consumption fell sharply at first, although it is now rebounding and energy analysts expect production this year to decline ” just over 1%.
Researchers say the biggest thing hitting CO2 emissions right now is the reduction in road transport.
According to the IEA, average global road transport activity has fallen to 50% of the level of 2019 at the end of March 2020.
As our graph shows, almost all countries have experienced a significant drop in road use. This has resulted in a massive drop in oil use.
“Back in the 2009 recession, average demand for oil fell 1.3 million barrels per day from 2008. And now 2020 is expected to average 10 million barrels per day less than in 2019. ”said Erik Holm Reiso of Rystad Energy, an independent research firm.
“It’s a much more severe cycle. “
Air travel also fell sharply, but by different amounts depending on the region.
In Europe, the number of flights is down by about 90%, while in the United States, it has been more resilient with about half the number of planes taking off compared to last year.
Globally, however, demand for jet fuel is down 65% year-over-year in April.
“What we find is that the biggest relative reduction is in air traffic,” said Robbie Andrew, senior researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (Cicero).
“But air emissions represent only about 3% of the world total. Thus, while the relative reductions in land transport are lower than those in air transport, the absolute reductions are much greater there. “
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It’s not the same everywhere
While the lockout may seem fairly uniform around the world, there have been huge variations in emission reductions from different cities.
If we take Paris and New York as examples, the contrast, as our graph shows, is enormous.
Paris experienced a 72% (+/- 15%) drop in CO2 in March compared to normal.
New York in the same period saw a drop in CO2 of around 10%.
So why the big difference?
“In the Paris region, there are no large fossil fuel power plants, nor industrial sites,” said Philippe Ciais, of the Pierre Simon Laplace Institute in Paris.
“Another difference is whether the buildings are heated with fuel oil or electricity. In France, around 70% of the electricity comes from nuclear power. “
Much of New York’s CO2 comes from emissions from heating buildings. But significant emissions come from fossil fuel power plants located within the city limits. Cars represent a much lower proportion of overall energy consumption.
“I guess something to think about is that we shut down the whole city and got a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions,” said Professor Róisín Commane of Columbia University in New York.
“We still emit more than 80% of our previous CO2 emissions. It’s a huge number. So personal behavior is not really going to solve the problem of carbon emissions. We need a systematic change in the way energy is generated and transmitted. “
Have CO2 emissions already peaked?
In 2008, the European electricity industry was hit hard by the global financial recession and demand for electricity fell sharply.
But when that demand picked up, it was solar and wind energy that were important enough to fuel all of the growth.
Europe’s use of fossil fuels to generate electricity has never returned to the level it was before the crash.
Experts now believe that something similar could happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
“In about half the world, we have already seen peak demand for fossil fuels,” said Kingsmill Bond, of the independent financial think tank Carbon Tracker.
“In Europe, it was in 2005, in the United States in 2007.”
This means that the demand trend has been declining ever since.
He added: “There was a peak in global demand for coal in 2013. If you look at the demand for cars, it is increasingly accepted that you saw a peak in demand for conventional cars in 2017”.
Does the blow of the carbon pandemic mean that last year, 2019, will be the year when the world reached a turning point?
Not so fast.
The decline in carbon emissions that followed the 2009 recession was followed by a sharp increase of almost 6% in 2010.
Something similar could happen in the next two years.
“At this point, we see no clear sign that the pandemic and our societal response to it will result in significant and permanent changes in the trajectory of future global emissions,” said Robbie Andrew de Cicero.
“Right now, what we are seeing are immediate responses to emissions, and after most previous crises, global emissions have returned to their pre-crisis trajectory. “
What if CO2 is reduced like this every year?
To keep the world on track to stay below 1.5C this century, the world needs similar cuts for the foreseeable future to keep this goal in sight.
“If Covid-19 causes emissions to drop by about 5% in 2020, then this is the type of reduction we need every year until zero net emissions are reached around 2050,” said Glen Peters, also from Cicero.
“Such emissions reductions will not be achieved through restrictions and restrictions, but through climate policies that will lead to the deployment of clean technologies and a reduction in energy demand. “
Energy experts believe there will be a rebound next year, but that in the long term the world will adopt greener fuels.
But this may not be enough to keep temperatures at safer levels.
“This downward slope will accelerate over time beyond the fossil fuel peak,” said Erik Holm Reiso of Rystad Energy.
“It doesn’t correspond to 1.5 ° C, but maybe 1.8 to 1.9 ° C could be close at hand and this situation could help achieve this goal, I think.” “
Many climate researchers are optimistic that this deadly pandemic has taught governments crucial lessons they can apply to the problem of rising temperatures.
The big challenge is to ensure that the recovery has a green orientation.
According to Professor Gail Whiteman of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, it was almost impossible to believe that governments around the world, in the face of a health emergency, would put humanity before the economy. But they did.
“We can recover from an existential and complex threat and emerge much stronger and more resilient,” she said.
“This reinforces the idea that we can do things differently on the climate, that we can tackle it.
“I think it gives us enormous energy. “
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