We recently marked the sad anniversary of the first national lockdown across the UK. Similar dates were observed in other countries across the world, with some minor differences in timelines. During the last 12 months, we have read many reports of animals reclaiming abandoned cities, wolf-packs roaming very close to humans, trees and vegetation covers rate increased. However, official data on the effects of COVID-19 on global greenhouse gases emissions were only published on 2nd March 2021 by the IEA: we can now make an informed evaluation of the real impacts that COVID has had on our climate during the last 12 months.
The first important data to look carefully at is related to the fall of fossil fuel consumption and renewable energies. The former has seen a general decline, mainly due to fewer people driving around, industries stopping productions, and similar restrictions in place around the world. On the other hand, energy consumption from renewable sources has been less affected and ended in similar patterns compared with previous years (both from energy delivered and rate of increase, i.e. proposal of new plants, construction etc).
Primary energy demand dropped nearly 4% in 2020, with resulting CO2 emission dropping by 5.8% globally. The figures are obviously unevenly shared between the global North and the global South, and are also different between close countries, as often the restrictions in place differed also on a regional rather than global scale.
As already mentioned, lockdowns have had a major influence on transport reduction: this account for a 50% decline in CO2 emissions globally. This set of data shows how individual actions have an impact on our climate: half of the CO2 we release into the atmosphere each year could be directly linked with personal travel (commercial travel, although could have been reduced in some areas, was never totally interrupted to guarantee the supply of goods, therefore the importance of individual travel).
In the power sector, GHG emissions fell by 3.3%, the largest recorded fall in history. We may come to think that being forced at home would have resulted in higher energy consumption, and that is probably true if we think about our domestic energy consumption. However, it is known that most of the energy consumption is at the industrial level, therefore lockdown restrictions have resulted in halting the production and so the energy consumption of part of the world industry.
At a more centralised level, almost all major economies have seen a decline in CO2 release, although at different rates. Among these, only China has actually seen an increase in CO2 release, even though it settled way back with the general trend of increasing emissions of recent years. China is a growing economy that did not stop growing during the pandemic, despite huge setbacks.
We do not know as of now if the energy trends of 2020 are a model to be implemented for future energy policies. What we do know is that during the pandemic we have seen how different energy generation system, especially in the form of backup plans for hospital and other essential services, could meet our energy demand for the most part. It is increasingly important that we are able to deliver power to more people while reducing the impact it has on our climate. The reason for this is that if more people has access to clean energy, the whole economy will benefit and it will provide more resources for future research.
Obviously, no one wished that a pandemic was the way to go, and it actually wasn’t: a decline of CO2 emissions could be quickly forgotten if the rebound effect of next year economic recovery will outweigh what was “accomplished” last year. It is not always up to our government to ensure we don’t fail on our mission: as we have seen with transport, if we want we are able to make a huge difference in our everyday life, pandemic or not.
If you want to dig deeper on the data, click here.