3 March, 2020

The Coronavirus and Carbon Emissions

Reducing fossil fuel use, cuts carbon emissions.

Nick Garrod
Written by Nick Garrod

In the past month, the world has seen a remarkably large drop in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming.

The reason is not necessary something to celebrate though.

Coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak in China, which has effected around 80,000 people, has shut down factories, refineries and flights across the country, as officials order people to stay home. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have been about twenty-five percent lower than during the same period last year, according to calculations sourced from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

China is such a huge industrial polluter that even a temporary dip like this is significant.

It has been estimated that the three-week decline is roughly equal to the amount of carbon dioxide that the state of New York puts out in a full year (about 150 million metric tons).

The numbers offer a reminder of how much we still depend on fossil fuels. Whenever industrial activity declines, whether because of a recession or a major disease outbreak, climate pollution tends to plummet, too.

Coal consumption

You can see in the chart above, the drop in China’s coal consumption.

Every year, the nation’s coal use reduces during the week-long holiday around the Lunar New Year, which occurred on 25 January this year. Coal-burning emissions then typically rise again once people return to work and factory activity increases.

However this year, coal use has yet to increase. In late January, the Chinese authorities extended the New Year’s holiday and put in restrictions on travel and public gatherings in an attempt to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

The effects have rippled through virtually all sectors of China’s economy.

Construction activity has slowed, which has meant reduced demand for steel and other materials. Oil refineries are producing less fuel than usual as trucks sit idle and the number of flights has dropped drastically. But economic disruptions on this scale, are usually accompanied by severe human costs and rarely make it easier to fight climate change; in some cases, they can make it harder.

One thing for sure, it is likely that China’s emissions will quickly restore to "usual" when the outbreak is finally contained.

So what does this tell us?

As we know, carbon dioxide is the main driver of global warming, and this reduction clearly shows that we can do something about it.

People in China have had to change their usual behaviour by staying at home and travelling less. This, combined with reduced business activity, has lowered carbon emissions for which China has the worlds highest level, producing c.905 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.


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Information in this blog has been usefully sourced from the NY Times.