Quirks & Quarks

Turning COVID-related drop in CO2 emissions into a plan to fight climate change

Carbon emissions experience biggest decline since WWII. But how can we keep it that way as lockdowns lift?

Daily carbon emissions were down 17% by April. How can we keep them down as lockdowns lift?

A lone man wears a mask while waiting at the normally bustling intersection of Queen Street and Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto. With people staying home more, traffic and therefore air pollution is down in many cities around the world. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A new study is putting a number to COVID-related carbon emission declines for the first time, and is using that data to understand how global economies can rebuild in a sustainable way. 

The research done by the Global Carbon Project found that daily global CO2 emissions were down 17 per cent by the beginning of April, and further projects a 4 - 7 per cent overall decline this year. 

"That may not sound like much to listeners, but that will be the biggest decline since World War Two, and perhaps ever," Rob Jackson, the chair of the Global Carbon Project, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Economic recessions have led to carbon emission declines in the past, but historically, those declines are temporary. Jackson points to the 2008 financial crisis, which saw global emissions dip 1.4 per cent, only to jump up 5.1 per cent the next year as the economy recovered. 

"We don't want our emissions to drop because people are unemployed and the economy's bad," said Jackson. "There's a lot that we can learn from this experience, and only by learning can we translate this tragic event into long-lasting good."

The air is so much cleaner from pollution because we're driving less and we could have that... every year.- Dr. Rob Jackson, Global Carbon Project.

Jackson and his colleagues looked at data from 69 countries, including the US, China, and Canada, which represent 97 per cent of global emissions and 85 per cent of the world's population. The study was published in Nature Climate Change.

Re-thinking Transportation

The study looked at six sources of carbon emissions: power, industry, surface transportation, public buildings/commerce, residential, and aviation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest declines were a direct result of people staying home.

"Transportation was at least half of the decline in emissions — cars and trucks mostly. Airline travel was down more than any other on a relative basis," said Jackson, an environmental scientist with Stanford University.

Cities across Canada have been reporting cleaner air during the lockdown, and Jackson says that doesn't have to end just because travel restrictions have been lifted.

"The air is so much cleaner from pollution because we're driving less and we could have that clean air, save thousands of lives, every year," he said.

Mont-Royal Avenue in Montreal, where sidewalks were extended into the road to open up more space for pedestrians. Environmental Scientist Rob Jackson suggests measures like this could help curb fossil fuel emissions in the long term. (Charles Contant/CBC/Radio-Canada)

He suggests that some changes made during the pandemic could be kept long-term in order to maintain some of these emission declines. "Cities are rethinking streets. They're closing streets to cars permanently now, and opening them to pedestrians and bicyclists. We're all telecommuting and I think that will be the new normal too," he said.

He also suggests a shift away from gas-powered cars, and toward electric vehicles. "Car and coal pollution still kills tens of thousands of people every year. So there are a lot of reasons to want to move away from a gas powered engine and move toward cleaner electric mobility."

Shifting away from coal power

Even though it was not as large a contributor to the COVID-related emission declines, Jackson sees further carbon-cutting opportunities in where we source our energy.

"Our electricity sector is changing quickly," he said. "Those changes are happening because of price first and foremost. Cheap natural gas, cheap wind and solar."

These price drops combined with reduce demand because of the pandemic have led to an accelerated shift away from coal, a known source of carbon emissions. A report released this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggests that this year the U.S. would produce more electricity from renewable sources than from coal for the first time. However, Jackson warns against dependence on natural gas to completely fill that void.

Empty lanes of a highway leading to downtown Los Angeles is seen during the coronavirus outbreak in Los Angeles, Calif. The world cut its daily carbon dioxide emissions by 17% at the peak of the pandemic shutdown last month, a new study found. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

"As a bridge fuel, natural gas helps, but it still emits carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas pollution, to the air, so eventually that bridge can't be too long," he said. "So we also need to really speed up the adoption of renewables, even coupling solar facilities to natural gas, methane production, or hydrogen production. So we really have to transform every sector of the economy."

Priority is getting people back to work

Considering the job losses and economic difficulties related to the lockdowns, Jackson believes that while the first priority is to get people back to work. But he suggests that it's not a choice between the economy and the environment.  We could choose to drive the recovery by creating jobs in the renewable energy sector, and funding sustainable industry.

"We can put people back to work in different ways," he said. "I think by promoting energy efficiency industry, which employs millions of people in Canada and the U.S., and these other industries that can provide jobs and help the environment and fight climate change, that's the way to go in my view."

Written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz


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