The pandemic-induced greenhouse gas emissions breather is officially over
Covid-19 wasn’t exactly the big break on climate change many hoped it would be: In the early days of the pandemic when travel and industrial manufacturing screeched to a halt speculation that a covid-19 triggered economic slowdown could provide us a chance to reel in GHG emissions ran wild. A little over a year later and it seems that most pandemic driven progress on the climate front has ground to a halt — and by some estimates could worsen — now that factories, shipping and travel are nearly back to “business as usual.”
Less travel, less time at the pump: The slowdown in international travel and commuting ushered in by travel bans and WFH orders brought energy-related pollution down 5.8% globally, marking the largest annual percentage decline since WWII, according to the IEA. Fossil fuel demand fell by 8.6%, and demand for coal saw a 4% y-o-y dip. Interestingly, the slump in oil demand came mostly from reduced road use, which accounted for 50% of the global reduction in CO2 emissions in 2020. Aviation emissions were also dramatically scaled back, showing a 45% reduction y-o-y over the course of 2020, which reached its peak in April when international travel plummeted by some 70% from the same time in the previous year.
It was kind of a good year for renewables and EVs: Use of renewables in global electricity generation reached nearly 28% in 1Q2020, up from 26% in 1Q2019, according to the IEA. Electric vehicle demand shot up by 43%, adding 10 mn new vehicles to roads in 2020.
But despite modest progress in 2020, we’ve reached peak carbon concentration: The atmospheric concentration of carbon hit a new record of 419 parts per mn in June 2021, the highest levels in roughly 4 mn years, according to US research institute the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). What the new data suggests is that the so-called breather provided by the pandemic barely placed a dent in our climate change trajectory.
And the prospects don’t look too promising: Some climate models have estimated that global temperatures will only be around 0.01 C lower by 2030 as a result of covid-19. Other, more optimistic studies have found that if the Paris Agreement national climate targets are fulfilled, annual greenhouse gas emissions will fall by only 1% in 2030.
The problem? We already have way too much carbon in the atmosphere. Keeping emissions constant is not enough, Pieter Tans, a climate scientist with NOAA told Vox. Barring a major change in our lifestyles and economic system, “CO2 would continue to go up at the same rate that we’ve seen in the last decade. Emissions really have to go to zero to stop this problem,” he said.
We’re unlikely to hit that 1.5 C warming target without significant structural change. To keep temperature rise to 1.5 C countries need to cut their global emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade which will require a complete overhaul of our energy, food and transportation systems, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report. With the World Meteorological Organization, updating its forecast in May to a 44% chance that the Earth will hit 1.5 C warming at some point in the next five years, global coal demand slated to grow by 60% this year, and China's 1Q2021 emissions of CO2 rising 9% above their pre pandemic levels, we’re likely to see a carbon intensive recovery before major economies pull their acts together.
Egypt has been making efforts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, and is partaking in a recent USD 200 mn World Bank-funded program that aims to modernize air quality monitoring systems. Egypt produced 310 mn tonnes of greenhouse gas in 2016, almost 10% of MENA’s 3.3 bn tonnes with our emissions growing at three times the global average rate, by 140% between 1990 and 2016. In order to curb our contribution to climate change, we need to drastically cut emissions, but we will have to strike a delicate balancing act between our climate and growth goals.