Aviation sees the highest drop in CO2 emissions due to pandemic - research

5 Jun 2020 by Tom Otley
Oxford-St, London

Aviation has seen the highest percentage drop in carbon dioxide emissions during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to peer-reviewed analysis released this week.

The research in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that aviation is the economic sector most impacted by the lockdown. On average, when countries were under maximum lockdown, aviation emissions decreased by 75 per cent).

In total, the sector accounted for a 10 per cent decrease in global emissions during the pandemic which is described in the research as “an outsize impact compared to the smaller percentage of world population who fly in any given year”.

As a result, campaigners and aviation policy experts are responding to the news by urging the biggest buyers of business travel, and governments, to lock in lower flying activity permanently, using the adaptations that were found to be possible in this crisis.

Todd Paglia, the Executive Director of  Stand.Earth said,

“Reducing climate pollution in every sector will be critical in the coming decade, and companies like Microsoft, Facebook and PwC just found out they can run their businesses with a tiny fraction of the air travel. This is important because it is among their largest carbon impacts and increasingly looks like a waste of money.”

The research paper confirmed that the impact of the confinement on annual emissions in 2020 is likely to lead to the largest single annual decrease in absolute emissions since the end of World War II.

The study shows that daily emissions decreased by 17 per cent globally during the peak of the confinement measures in early April compared to mean daily levels in 2019, dropping to levels last observed in 2006.

Emissions from surface transport, such as car journeys, accounted for almost half (43 per cent) of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement on April 7. Emissions from industry and from power together account for a further 43 per cent of the decrease in daily global emissions.

The increase in the use of residential buildings from people working at home only marginally offset the drop in emissions from other sectors.

The analysis also shows that social responses alone, without increases in wellbeing and/or supporting infrastructure, will not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net zero emissions.

The authors tested for three potential scenarios of easing out of lockdown later this year, and found that the world could be on course for a 4 to7 per cent drop in total emissions by the end of 2020.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) gap report says decreases in greenhouse gas emissions of 2.7 per cent per year are needed to keep warming well below 2oC, and 7.6 per cent per year to keep below 1.5oC.

Although the Covid-19 global lockdown has had an “extreme” effect on daily carbon emissions, it is unlikely to last.

Prof Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia led the analysis. Professor Le Quéré said: “Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions. These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems.

“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come.

“Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement.

“For example in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for wellbeing and air quality than building roads, and it preserves social distancing.“

The team analysed government policies on confinement for 69 countries responsible for 97 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

At the peak of the confinement, regions responsible for 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions were under some level of restriction. Data on activities indicative of how much each economic sector was affected by the pandemic was then used to estimate the change in fossil CO2 emissions for each day and country from January to April 2020.

The estimated total change in emissions from the pandemic amounts to 1048 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2) until the end of April. Of this, the changes are largest in China where the confinement started, with a decrease of 242 MtCO2, then in the US (207 MtCO2), Europe (123 MtCO2), and India (98 MtCO2).

The impact of confinement on 2020 annual emissions is projected to be around 4 per cent to 7 per cent compared to 2019, depending on the duration of the lockdown and the extent of the recovery. If pre-pandemic conditions of mobility and economic activity return by mid-June, the decline would be around 4 per cent. If some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of the year, it would be around 7 per cent.

This annual drop is comparable to the amount of annual emission reductions needed year-on-year across decades to achieve the climate objectives of the UN Paris Agreement.

Prof Rob Jackson of Stanford University and Chair of the Global Carbon Project who co- authored the analysis, added: “The drop in emissions is substantial but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments. We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behaviour. “

Research indicates that the decrease in emissions this year will not do much to impact climate change, as it is extremely small compared to the emissions accumulated so far, and compared to the emissions cuts needed to tackle climate change. The authors warn that the rush for economic stimulus packages must not make future emissions higher by delaying New Green Deals or weakening emissions standards, and COP26 remains a vital milestone in this effort.

The authors recommend decision-makers focus on policies around transport and mobility, given this accounted for around half the decrease in emissions during confinement.

The authors conclude that it will mean, “Reducing demand for aviation by supporting more local tourism and video conferencing for businesses.”

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