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expert reaction to new analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on carbon emissions

A study, published in Nature Climate Change, reports on the impact of COVID-19 on carbon emissions.


Prof Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at the Met Office Hadley Centre, said:

“This highly impressive and comprehensive paper lays out in detail exactly how, why and where emissions of carbon dioxide were reduced as countries around the world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. But although this is likely to lead to the largest cut in emissions since World War II, it will make barely a dent in the ongoing build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide stays in the air a long time, so although emissions are smaller, they are still happening and so carbon dioxide is still building up, just a little more slowly. If we want to halt the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we need to stop putting it there altogether, not just put it there more slowly. It’s like we’re filling a bath and have turned down the tap slightly, but not turned it off – the water is still rising, just not as fast. To stop the bath overflowing, we need to turn the tap right down straight away, and soon turn it right off.”


Dr Joeri Rogelj, Lecturer in Climate Change and Environment, Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said:

“The study does a nice job in explaining how carbon dioxide emission have dropped as a result of the COVID pandemic lockdown. Emissions dropped on average between 20 and 30% in both developed and developing countries, but because they don’t all drop at the same time that makes for a maximum global drop that is slightly smaller.

“None of this is good news for anyone. It is the symptom of a massive economic disruption caused by the pandemic and the measures to contain it. For the climate, this month-long wake in otherwise record-high emissions is entirely insignificant. Even worse, massive economic stimulus measures are now being announced and there is a high risk that short-sightedness will lead to governments lose track of the bigger picture, for example, by putting their money towards highly polluting sectors that have no place in a zero-pollution and zero-carbon society.

“Such poorly informed decisions would severely set back the transition towards a sustainable future. It is thus up to citizens worldwide to demand of their governments that they invest in climate-positive sectors in pursuit of resilient and sustainable future societies.”


Prof Andrew Watson FRS, Royal Society Research Professor, University of Exeter said:

“This study shows that the painful and sudden adjustments that we have made in the last two months are not the way to tackle climate change.  Rather, to make sustainable change we need to alter structurally the way we generate energy, which needs a lot more planning and thought than has gone into the response to the pandemic. Policymakers should take on board that if we plan seriously for it, the response to climate change doesn’t have to be painful and disruptive in the way this pandemic has been.”


Prof Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science, University College London, said:

“This study clearly demonstrates that long-term reductions in emissions will only come from new policies and investments tailored to driving down emissions and making people’s lives better.  As everybody is feeling the impact of Covid-19 including enormous economic uncertainty, what is needed is new investments to align economic prosperity for all with emissions reductions down to net zero by 2050. The UK is in a pivotal global position as host of the next UN climate summit to publish a clear roadmap to meet our net zero target and tackle the challenges of Covid-19 together.”


Prof Euan Nisbet, Professor of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, said:

“Le Queré et al. have tried to estimate the impact on CO2 emissions of the COVID-19 lockdowns country by country, by developing a ‘confinement index’ and applying it to different economic sectors. This then lets them estimate total impacts on CO2 emissions, over 69 countries, 50 US states and 30 Chinese provinces, representing 97% of the world’s emissions. They find that at the peak, emissions dropped by over a quarter in most countries.  Overall, world emissions will drop by between 4 and 7% in 2020.

“These are estimates, and not measurements. It is very difficult actually to measure emissions in real time, in variable wind and weather, and many high-precision instruments were turned off during lock down, so these findings are a very useful first estimate. More than that, they help point to future policy, showing what we will need to do to get the Paris Agreement back on track.  Up to now, it seemed the Paris Agreement had as much hope as a dolphin in the Yangtse. Now Nature has hit the Pause button. In the long-term record, this emissions lockdown reduction is just a blip, but perhaps this heartbreakingly sad event may help point us to real change?”


Prof Dave Reay, Chair in Carbon Management and Executive Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, University of Edinburgh, said

“This is sobering stuff. The shuttered shops and Zoom-lit kitchens, the empty skies and silent roads, all those billions of lockdown sacrifices and privations have made just a small and likely transient dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. Covid-19 is no help on climate change, it is a devastating scourge that respects neither border nor birthday. Ten more years of global lockdown to meet the Paris Climate Goals? No thanks. Yet climate change has not stopped, it remains the greatest threat to our civilisation in the 21st century and the next few years will define our climate future for generations to come. Whether 2020 will be a brief and savage emissions dip, before a fossil-fuelled surge back to business as usual in the climate emergency is still unclear. What is clear is that, without a green recovery from Covid, the sacrifices and privations of lockdown are but a taste of the climate change impacts all humanity will face.”


Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, University College London, said:

“Covid19 has brought the world to a standstill but even if the lockdowns are extended further this year the global carbon emissions would be reduced by just 7%.

“Corinne Le Quéré and colleagues’ excellent study shows how embedded fossil fuels are to our whole lifestyle, so that ceasing almost all flying and car journeys has a small impact on our total greenhouse gas pollution.  In fact, in the worst-case scenario, 2020 global carbon emissions will be the same as 2006. This is because there has been very little change to energy production during the pandemic.

“If we are to limit global warming to just 1.5˚C then we need to make global cuts of at least 7% per year for the next 30 years. The pandemic shows us that major structural changes in the transport and energy systems are required. Governments must embed the changes that have already occurred by shifting the transport sector to low carbon as quick as possible. The real lesson of this pandemic is that we must globally shift our energy production away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible if we are to ensure sustained year-on-year cuts to our global emissions. The good news is that both of these will help to maintain the clean air and clear skies we have all rediscovered during lockdown, saving many lives.”



‘Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement’ by Corinne Le Quéré et al. will be published in Nature Climate Change at 4pm UK TIME on Tuesday 19 May 2020, which is also when the embargo will lift.


Declared interests

Prof Watson: “I’m not involved in the research and have no competing interests, though I am involved in joint research with some of these authors.”

Prof Maslin: “no interests related to this work to declare”

No others received.


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