The coronavirus crisis has had a greater impact on emissions than previously thought but with pollution levels surging in China as the country emerges from lockdown, the benefits have been shortlived, according to new research.
Three studies published this week underline the profound effect of the pandemic on the environment, as it reshapes pollution trends and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Daily global emissions were 17 per cent lower in early April than the same period of 2019, as countries went into lockdown, according to a new paper in Nature Climate Change. “This is an extreme drop, it is something we have not seen before,” said Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the paper.
A separate analysis found China’s pollution levels had rebounded to above their pre-crisis levels, underscoring how the climate gains from lockdown were shortlived.
In the past month, levels of air pollutants including ozone, sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter across China reached concentrations above the same period last year, according to the analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish group.
“Highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst.
“The rapid rebound in air pollution and coal consumption levels across China is an early warning of what a smokestack industry-led rebound could look like,” he added. “The floodgates of construction stimulus have not been opened yet, but one driver of the rebound is simply the expectation of a gigantic spending spree, resembling the one that followed the global financial crisis.”
Pollution from heavy industry, power plants and transportation has increased since China began lifting its lockdown in March and April.
Beijing will in coming days announce a new 2020 GDP target — and whether it even has a numerical target at all — that could set the course for further stimulus measures.
The Nature Climate Change study found that during January through April, China had the biggest absolute drop in emissions, followed by the US and then the EU (the study included data up to the end of April).
However, Prof Le Quéré warned the global drop in emissions measured by the study might be only temporary.
“We have decreased emissions very rapidly, but really nothing has changed,” she said. “We still have the same roads, the same buildings, the same industries, so as soon as confinement lifts, there is a risk that we go back to the way it was before.”
As European countries start to lift their lockdowns and revive their economy, a number of politicians, academics and business leaders are calling for the recovery to be climate-focused.
The drops in air pollution across many European cities have prompted shifts toward more cycling and walking.
A third new analysis found daytime carbon dioxide emissions in London plummeted 59 per cent in the city centre during lockdown, primarily because of less vehicle traffic in the city.
“I think it gives us a glimpse into the future, as to how we can reduce our carbon emissions extremely quickly,” said Janet Barlow, professor of environmental physics at the University of Reading and an author of the study. The analysis was conducted by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology using measurements taken at the atmospheric observatory in London’s BT Tower.
Prof Barlow said the team was waiting to see how quickly emissions rise as lockdown eased. “We will see the emissions change, and we will see whether we have a reduction or an overshoot, compared to the previous levels,” she said.