In coronavirus lockdown, carbon emissions plunge but DON’T celebrate!

By Asitha Jayawardena

Online work at home, only necessary travel and no flying – this is how the lockdown happened since 23 March in the UK.

Other countries slightly differed but the most of the rest of the world was in confinement. For example, Italy started lockdown in February.

From January to April, what did the lockdown do to carbon emissions?

Carbon emissions down

According to the first research study published in Nature Climate Change, the first quarter of 2020 saw a drop of global carbon emissions by 17% when compared with 2019.

17% is a big number and we can celebrate it, at home of course.

No way! In May, the carbon concentration rose up to 418ppm (parts per million) and it is the highest level in the last 3 million years. This is the value that is the most critical for climate change.

Despite reduction, the remaining carbon emissions (83%) added to the carbon concentration which went up (418ppm) though not as much as it would be. Such a reduction of carbon emissions will make a little impact on the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere, says Richard Betts at the Met Office in the UK.

Even though the lockdown was necessary to battle coronavirus, “… it (lockdown) is not desirable – this is not the way to tackle climate change,” says Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia.

Any way, the world cannot be in the period of lockdown for long.

Bathtub analogy

To obtain a better idea, let’s consider a bathtub analogy.

Suppose the human-driven CO2 emissions come out of the tap and the land and ocean act as the drain. Half the amount of water from the tap goes down the drain and the other half is in the tub. Although 17% of the carbon emissions is removed from the tap, a further 83% of ‘water’ would fill in. The tub will still fill but at a slower rate and simply would not drain completely.

By staying home, driving less and not flying as in the global pandemic we are currently living in, we are adding over 80% of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. It’s a fact.

What to do on climate change…

According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the global temperature rise should be limited to 1.5oC beyond the pre-industrial levels if we want to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change from battering human societies.

To reach this goal, the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions should fall by about 7.6% every year until 2030 and beyond. Eventually, carbon emissions should be approximately zero.

This is not a job that is too easy.

“The message shouldn’t be: It’s too hard,” says Constantine Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University. “The message should be: We have to work hard to find a way to do this well.”

In 2020, carbon emissions in 2006

The climate change team looked at six categories of CO2 sources: power generation (44%), industry (22%), surface transport (20%), residential buildings (6%), public buildings and commerce (4%), and aviation (3%). And the estimates were taken from 69 countries, 50 US states and 30 Chinese provinces, representing 97% of global carbon emissions.

Between January and April, it looked at what was changed as countries came in and out of lockdown.

From the lockdown, aviation dropped by 75% but its share in CO2 emissions is 3%. The surface transport fell by 50% with its value of carbon emissions is 20%. Power went down by 15% but the value of CO2 emissions is 44%. With the drop of 17% of carbon emissions, we were somewhere in 2006.

Three ways…

To move towards Paris Agreement, we must move forward. There much more to do than to reduce emissions by staying (and working) at home, unnecessary travel and no flying.

“We have to recognize that (i.e. climate change),” says Constantine Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University, “and to recognize that technological, behavioral, and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions.”

We must remember it. Technological, behavioral, and structural change.


Le Queré, C. et al. (2020) Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the Covid-19 forced confinement, Nature Climate Change, doi/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

Daily global CO2 emissions ‘cut to 2006 levels’ during height of coronavirus crisis

Plunge in carbon emissions from lockdowns will not slow climate change

Lockdowns trigger dramatic fall in global carbon emissions



  1. Yes, I listened to Richard Betts speech and his bathtub analogy was a good way to demonstrate his point….we still need to be vigilant and not complacent. Thank you for following CarolCooks2 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. UK government is keen on green recovery but we have to wait and see. I think that UK is out of the EU Green Deal.


  3. Thank you CarolCooks2 for the reply. Yes, bathtub analogy was good but we should be vigilant when the lockdown eases in the UK.


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