COVID & CO2: emissions going back up

Global carbon emissions dropped by 17% at the peak of the lockdown - but are going right back up again...
30 June 2020

Interview with 

Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia


Industries causing air pollution


The pandemic has strong links to the environment. As we’ve previously reported on the show, lockdowns across the globe have led to some unexpected consequences - from oil prices going into the negative, to dolphins in the canals of Venice and goats invading Llandudno. Not to mention the fact that it was an environmental hazard - a coronavirus originating in wild bats (we think) - that started everything off. Phil Sansom spoke to environmental scientist Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia and from the Global Carbon Project. She’s helped produce a report showing how CO2 emissions have been affected so far...

Corinne - The pandemic had an extremely large effect on carbon emissions. At the peak of the confinement in early April, daily emissions dropped by 17% compared to an average day last year,

Phil - I guess, in some ways I'm a little surprised it's not more, given how many people were off the roads and at home.

Corinne - Actually it is more in the U.K. It was 31% decrease, and about the same in the U.S. and the countries that were under severe lock down, but not all the countries were locked down at the same time. So because of the timing of the lock down, the global emissions are down 17% while country by country is a lot more.

Phil - That must be pretty good for preventing global warming, right?

Corinne - These are not the kind of emissions that we need for tackling climate change. These are not desirable, obviously, because locking up people is not the way to tackle climate change, but they're also not structural. We have the same cars, the same roads, the same heating system, the same industry. So as soon as the lock down eases, then we go back to our previous way of life, and the emissions will rebound possibly even higher than they were before. And we already see emissions coming back up. There are about now, about 5% below their level last year.

Phil - Man, we really are going right back to our old emitting ways.

Corinne - We are, but this is really not surprising. This is what happened at the end of the last global financial crisis of 2008, 2009. Because the economic stimulus packages did not pay enough attention to green stimulus. And so it's what happens now, how we go back to work, transport in particular is very important in the bit longer time, the more structural changes to be put in place.

Phil - How much scope for that is there? Because obviously there's this huge emergency of a pandemic. And there's the second huge emergency of global recession.

Corinne - There's huge scope to act now, because the governments are about to put incredible sums of money into the economy. If you can orient these sums of money, first to help you do the things that create jobs, but also develop the infrastructure that you need to tackle climate change, then you have a win-win position and there's lots of them. And in fact, this is what happened at the end of the last financial crisis. So some countries like Germany, the U.S. and China invested massively in renewable energy. So they invested in wind and solar power, with the result that today these energies are competitive and they're very broadly expanded around the world. And the same thing could happen now to the car industry.

Phil - What kind of deadline are we working to here?

Corinne - If the pandemic is essentially over then the emissions this year would drop by 4%. And if some confinement measures stay in place until the end of the year, then the drop would be more around 7%. So 4 to 7%, and these kinds of decreases, this is what we need to do year on year. I mean, tackling climate change is not something that you do on the side. It's something that you have to bring in the middle of the centre of the government. It has to be directed by the prime minister. It has to be part of each decision. There have to be strategies across the economy.


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