New projections for economic growth in 2020 suggest the that impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions. The effect is likely to be less pronounced than during the global financial crisis (GFC). And emissions declines in response to past economic crises suggest a rapid recovery of emissions when the pandemic is over. But prudent spending of economic stimulus measures, and a permanent adoption of new work behaviours, could influence how emissions evolve in future.
The unprecedented coronavirus lockdown in China led to an estimated 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over a two-week period compared to previous years (mostly due to a drop in electricity use, industrial production and transport). This is enough to shave one percentage point growth off China’s emissions in 2020. Reductions are also being observed in Italy, and are likely to spread across Europe as lockdowns become more widespread. The emission-intensive airline industry, covering 2.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions (both national and international), is in freefall. It may take months, if not years, for people to return to air travel given that coronavirus may linger for several seasons. Given these economic upheavals, it is becoming increasingly likely that global carbon dioxide emissions will drop in 2020.
Previous financial shocks, such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union or the 1970s and 1980s oil crises, also had periods with lower or negative growth, but growth soon returned. At best, a financial crisis delays emissions growth a few years. Structural changes may happen, such as the shift to nuclear energy after the oil crises, but evidence suggests emissions continue to grow. However, the economic legacy of the coronavirus might also be very different to the GFC. It looks more like a slow burner, with a drop in productivity over an extended period rather than widespread job losses in the short term.