COVID-19: A New Path for Climate Change or Another Defence for Largest Carbon Emitters?




In a recent study, Eurostat, the statistical office of EU found that in 2020, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions from fuel combustion sources such as coal, peat, oil and natural gas essentially dropped by 10% in the EU contrasted by the previous year. This drop has been attributed to the COVID-19 control measures that were extensively implemented by the EU Member States, through 2020. The steepest drop was seen in Greece with a reduction of 18.7% and the lowest drop was seen in Malta with only 1%. While this comes as positive news, there is an urgency to understand the impact of energy production and its link with climate change.


History of Climate Change Talks


Climate Change has come a long way. Its roots can be traced back to the first World Climate Conference in 197, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) setup in 1988 to learn and discuss climate change. This eventually led to the historical Rio Earth Summit which led to some of the first international agreements and subsequent creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledging climate change as a global concern. The UNFCCC led to the Conference of Parties (COP) beginning in Berlin. It was the third COP which led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the first such legally binding treaty, asking nations to reduce their emissions by an average of 5 per cent below 1990 levels, followed only by Japan and Russia primarily. Further, due to worsening climatic conditions, a set the Cancun Agreement brought together 80 countries to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees but was deemed insufficient by analysts. Finally, only in 2015, after numerous criticisms, countries signing in and out of deals the Paris Climate Agreement was reached 2015. It pledged to keep global temperature rise below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5°C.


The UN Climate Action Summit of 2019 was a significant step to look at the outcomes of the Paris Agreement but was boycotted by top carbon emitters such as U.S.A and China. Later the failure of COP25 to reach a consensus and postponement of COP26 in Glasgow presents a weak case for climate prevention and mitigation. The failure of the biggest carbon emitters such as the U.S.A and China to recognize the need for an urgent plan to set up the link energy-generating harm environmental safeguards makes it imperative for us to trace the adverse effects of greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 disbursed primarily by the higher energy consumption of these big carbon emitters.




The link between Climate Change and Energy Production


CO2 emissions from the petroleum and energy sector are created in a country where fossil fuels are used to generate power, facilitate transport, and accelerate steel production. If a nation imports coal, the electricity will be generated in the importing nation. Due to this, imports of harmful energy-generating products like coal have an adverse impact on a nation’s production of greenhouse gases and thus, climate change.


Carbon Dioxide emissions are a significant reason for the worldwide temperature boost and global warming. CO2 emissions from the energy sector record for some 75% of all human-made harmful emissions from the European Union (EU). They are affected by elements such as environmental conditions, industrial development, size of the populace, and transport.


The rise in COVID, Fall in Emissions


A Case for China


A study by Carbon Brief highlights the drop in China’s drop in energy demand and emissions, up until mid-February of 2020. However, it suggests that towards the beginning of April the emission levels began to return to normal.


The coal-fired power generation typically drops by an average of 50% in the 10 days following the eve of Chinese New Year, due to the temporary closure of the country. However, this time it dropped for a longer time and remained subdued due to the country’s lockdown to control the pandemic. There was a sharp fall in demand for oil and steel products due to sluggish manufacturing. This resulted in a 25% additional reduction of CO2 emissions in the same two-week period after the Chinese New Year.


NO2 popularly known as Nitrogen Dioxide, an air pollutant closely linked to fossil fuel burning dropped by an average of 36% all over China. As of 30th March 2020, “Nitrogen dioxide pollution levels, measured both from NASA satellites and Chinese government stations, have also returned to normal, indicating that current emission levels both in urban areas and in industrial centres are close to pre-crisis levels.”


A Case for Italy


A study by CAMS (Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service) operated by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) on behalf of the European Commission, dated 17th March 2020, shows the declining level of NO2 in Italy.



Image: Surface concentrations of nitrogen dioxide over northern Italy, comparison between 31 January and 15 March 2020. (Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS); ECMWF)



It underlined the trend of about a 10% reduction in NO2 levels per week over four to five weeks between January and March.


A Case for India


The World Economic Forum stated that India’s most polluted city Delhi faced low levels of particulate matter. In cities like Delhi, the Air Quality Index has gone from “Severe” to “Satisfactory” and pollution has hit an all-time low.


A Time for Establishing Environmental Safeguards


However, the rate of changes in emissions is subject to large variations in the surface concentrations of pollutants. Hence the detection of low CO2 or NO2 levels is quite complex and anomalous. While this drop in emissions during the pandemic is a starting point for everyone to look at the positive effects of reduced pollution, it is but just a temporary phase. A study by Nature Research elucidates how a similar situation arose during the 2008-09 global financial crisis (GFC). The GFC led to an overall dip in emissions of 1.3%. However, it quickly rebounded by 2010 as the economy recovered, leading to an all-time high rate of emissions.


At a macroscopic level, the effects of climate change in the form of floods and cyclones act as a threat to the global community. While the reduction in emissions due to COVID-19 show us a silver lining, they can only be sustained by consistent efforts by nations worldwide. Inspiration from this silver lining can ensure large carbon-emitting nations such as the U.S. and China take responsibility and cognizance of their actions to abide by international climate treaties.






About the Author: Asmita Jain, is a post-graduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Her interests are public policy, institutions and urban ecology. Email: asmitajain15@gmail.com/ IG Handle: asmitajainn