COVID-19 Pandemic Could Lead to Fall in CO2 Not Seen Since the End of WWII

As the COVID-19 pandemic brings economies to a halt around the world, scientists have predicted that global carbon dioxide emissions may drop by more than 5 percent in 2020—in what would be the largest fall since the end of the Second World War.

The projections come from a researcher with the Global Carbon Project (GCP)—an organization which aims to track the quantity of greenhouse gases that humans are pumping into the atmosphere.

"I wouldn't be shocked to see a 5 percent or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War II," Rob Jackson, chair of the GCP and a professor at Stanford University, told Reuters.

"Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings and loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is," he said.

According to Jackson, the projected fall this year would be the first reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions since the 1.4 percent drop seen after the financial crisis of 2008.

As economic productivity slows, declines in greenhouse gas emissions are not surprising given that the two factors are tightly linked, according to Kevin Rose, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Kolleck Career Development Chair in Freshwater Ecology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"Economic recessions and resulting declines in energy use and population shifts can drive dramatic reductions in environmental impacts," he previously told Newsweek.

"Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, have declined during many past recessions as energy-intensive economic activities slow. Quarantine protocols may also have a deep, but short-term, impact on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, as fewer people are traveling and fewer businesses are operating."

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States.

This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.
This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.

However, much like past economic recessions, global emissions are likely to bounce relatively quickly as the crisis subsides.

"This drop is not due to structural changes so as soon as confinement ends, I expect the emissions will go back close to where they were," Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, U.K., told Reuters.

According to Jackson, there was a 5.1 percent rise in greenhouse gas emissions during the recovery after the 2008 financial crisis.

steel factory, greenhouse gas emissions
A closeup of flames coming out of a chimney at Tata Steel at sunset on January 21, 2020 in Port Talbot, United Kingdom. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

"Even if there is a decline in emissions in 2020, let's say 10 percent or 20 percent, it's not negligible, it's important, but from a climate point of view, it would be a small dent if emissions go back to pre-COVID-19 crisis levels in 2021," Pierre Friedlingstein, chair in mathematical modelling of the climate system at the University of Exeter, U.K., told Reuters.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.