Mar 14, 2022

COVID-19 and the Global Climate Crisis

Energy Transition
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COVID-19 led to a global shutdown.

Air travel was dramatically reduced. Most factories and industries ceased operations, or operated at significantly reduced capacities. It was not uncommon to find empty roadways and motorways, as people remained home and automotive travel became limited to driving for necessities.

Aside from ushering one of the most profound changes to human society, the pandemic may have also significantly impacted the planet itself.

After the first few months of global lockdowns, you could see changes in air quality in some of the world’s most polluted cities… but what about the changes in something we can’t see?


Scientists examining data from the early days of the pandemic found something promising: from January to April 2020, global emissions decreased by 17% from 2019 levels as industrialized nations shut down operations.

In some regions, measurement of nitrogen oxide levels in the atmosphere (which is a strong indicator of carbon dioxide levels) showed as much as 50% reduction in emissions in some parts of China, and as much as 40% reduction in emissions in parts of the United States.

This level of change is unprecedented, and global reductions observed during the early months of the pandemic represented the greatest reduction ever recorded during any major economic slowdown, including the Second World War.

This may sound like good news, but it’s not that simple.

Think of emissions like a tap filling a bath tub. In 2020, water flowed a bit more slowly, but the bath is still filling up with water… and there’s still the question of the water that was already in there to begin with.

In fact, in June 2020 when many countries were still in lockdown, concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere reached the highest level in human history, and quite possibly in 3 million years.


Look, one thing is clear: our carbon bathtub is pretty full, and we’re past the point where we can just pull the plug. There needs to be a long-term drop in carbon output to make a real difference to the climate crisis.  

To put things into perspective, the 17% global emissions reduction observed between January and April 2020 took us back to 2006 levels of global CO2 emissions. This means that despite the concerted effort of all countries to cease operations for an extended amount of time, we were only still able to reverse the impacts of climate change by 14 years.

When taken as a whole, total emissions in 2020 were only around 7% lower than in 2019. The United Nations has previously outlined that we have to drop 7.6% annually for the next nine years in order be on track to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The climate crisis is perhaps most difficult and complex issue that we will ever face and, If anything, the lockdown showed us the true scale of the problem we’re facing.

March 14, 2022

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