A sneak-peak into lower emissions: the Climate and COVID-19

March 20203 min readClimate FinanceEnergy

Insights into a world with fewer emissions are an important take-away and potential upside of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Wars and disease have adjusted the impact of humans on climate for centuries. Some studies show how 800 years ago the expansion of the Genghis Kahn empire led to reforestation of vast areas reducing 700 million tons of CO2, and reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 0.1 ppm. However, this is nothing compared to the impact of the post-industrial revolution era where CO2 levels rose from ~275 ppm to more than 400 ppm of CO2.

Mosquito-borne diseases like dengue or malaria still cause around 700,000 deaths per year, but the high contagion rate of COVID-19 is changing the way we live in the last months. The slow-down of the day to day routine have momentarily decreased the CO2 emissions pumped every day into our atmosphere.

With restricted mobility and complete city lockdowns, transport (which represents one quarter of global CO2 emissions) is one of the most impacted sectors. The number of flights per day have halved, while the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia have brought down the price of oil to the lowest levels in almost 20 years. 


Net electricity demand has also fallen in all countries with severe lockdown measures, since the decrease in demand in the industrial sector is much higher than the increase in residential demand with more people staying at home. A study from Carbon Brief showed a decline of 25% of the CO2 emissions in China compared to the same period of 2019, around 100 million tonnes of CO2 (still far from reaching the 1.5⁰C path). Reducing this amount of CO2 at USD 20/tonne would have supposed an investment of USD 2 billion, ~3 times the size of the responsAbility managed energy debt fund.

This crisis also affected the supply chain of clean energy with closed factories of Tesla, Gamesa (wind turbines manufacturer) and those of several PV panels manufacturers. However, recent news of China slowly lifting the quarantine in April also suggests a much faster reactivation of the economy compared to previous crisis’.

We should keep in mind that this drop in CO2 emissions is not sustainable, and the WMO stressed this message in their last press release. The COVID-19 crisis would probably be a short-term effect in climate terms and there will be a rebound of emissions when the economic activity restarts. How consumers and governments react to the post-crisis scenario is key: in 2008-09, after the global financial crisis, carbon emissions rose as a result of stimulus spending that increased fossil fuel use. Low oil prices and energy subsidies will also impact investment in energy efficiency. This is an opportunity to redirect those efforts and investments towards accelerating clean energy deployment (see here the last numbers reported by IEA on energy investments).

This shows us how far, even in the current situation, we are from a low carbon economy, and the magnitude of the efforts we all need to do. At the same time, this situation is also giving us a sneak peek on how our cities can be with reduced air pollution and less traffic. Hopefully, this crisis will bring a change and, 800 hundred years from now, researchers will look back to 2020 not only to see the impacts of COVID-19 but also as the year when global GHG finally started declining.