Global Emissions Were Slowing Even Before the Pandemic

The growth rate of human-created greenhouse gases was slowing even before the pandemic hit the global economy—just not fast enough to hold back the rate of climate change. 

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels increased just 0.1% in 2019 from the previous year. In 2020, they’ll fall a record 7%, to 34 billion metric tons of CO₂, according to the Global Carbon Project, an international effort by researchers to measure CO₂ emissions. The results line up closely with a major United Nations report released this week that also showed an anticipated 7% drop in emissions this year.

“This level of reduction is unprecedented and about five times bigger than the drop during the global financial crisis in 2018,” said Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Budget. “Although the future is yet to be written, there is indeed an unprecedented opportunity that could curve down the future trajectory of emissions if we actively choose to do so.”

The average annual growth in global emissions between 2010 and 2019 dropped to 0.9%, compared with an average 3% increase registered over the previous decade, researchers found. 

That slowdown on its own isn’t enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change, however. Scientific models show that total emissions need to fall between 25% and 50% through 2030 to limit global warming to 2° or 1.5° Celsius above preindustrial levels, the threshold at which UN climate researchers say certain destructive effects of warming will be locked in.

Last year’s small increase and this year’s record decline in emissions also won’t slow down the accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere, which is responsible for most of the global warming trend. The concentration of CO₂ in 2020 was 48% above pre-industrial levels and 16% above 1990. 

Global Emissions Were Slowing Even Before the Pandemic

Emissions from China, the world’s top emitter, fell 1.7% this year. U.S. emissions were down 12%, while the European Union—excluding the U.K.—saw a drop of 11%. India, the world’s third-largest emitter, cut its CO₂ footprint by 9%. 

Transport emissions, which usually make up 21% of global emissions, were halved at their nadir during the most widespread lockdowns. (Aviation emissions plummeted 75%, although that decline had a smaller global effect because aviation accounts for just under 3% of total global emissions.) Industrial emissions fell by a third, while emissions from power production were down 15%.

In many places, the sharp emissions declines from coronavirus restrictions were superposed on prior reductions. Twenty-four countries have shrunk their carbon footprints over the past decade, including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Germany, and Mexico. 

The U.S. and EU emitted less in 2019 largely because they reduced coal usage by nearly 15% and 18%, respectively. India’s emissions were already lower than normal late last year because of economic turmoil and strong hydropower generation, the report said. 

On top of that, more than 2,000 climate and energy policies in countries around the world bear some of the responsibility for the weakening of emissions growth over the past decade, according to the report. Among the most relevant is the 2015 Paris Agreement, under which most world governments pledged to cut emissions to keep warming below 2°C by the end of the century.

There’s a risk that this year’s sharp reductions are short-lived. Data from CarbonMonitor, a daily global CO₂ estimate run by four research centers, suggests industrial emissions from China and Brazil picked up enough in October to offset reductions in other countries during that time. In the past, slumps in emissions driven by economic crises have been followed by a rebound as activity picked up. 

“Toward the end of 2020, what is clear is that emissions are edging back toward 2019 levels already now,” said Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, during a press conference. “But it’s a little bit early to say how big the rebound will be in 2021.”

While overall human emissions have dropped, those resulting from changes in land use remain unchanged from the past decade, staying at about 6 billion metric tons of CO₂ for 2020. These sort of emissions—which include managed fires for agricultural use, land degradation, emission from soils, and peat-burning—could be brought close to zero by implementing measures to halt deforestation and degradation, the report said. 

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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