23 Apr 2020

The impact of Covid-19 on our carbon emissions

Posted in: Environmental news

The impact of Covid-19 on our carbon emissions

Covid-19 is having a huge impact on our lives, our jobs, communities, and economies – as well as our carbon emissions. Read on to discover the impact of lockdown on our environment, and what we’ll need to consider to keep our carbon reduction momentum going.

We can all see the toll that Covid-19 is having on lives, our jobs, communities, and economies. But how is it impacting our environment and carbon emissions?

Dramatically, in some cases.

Carbon emissions in China dropped by 25 per cent (or approximately 100MtCO2) in March 2020 compared with the same period the year before, with coal usage dropping to a four-year low. Scientists expect similar results in Europe, with nitrogen oxide levels plummeting across the continent. Italy’s electricity demand dropped by 10% as the nation went into lockdown.

In some of the world’s most polluted spaces, the dramatically reduced road transport has resulted in clearer skies and long-range views not seen in years.

Empty City

Locally, we are seeing similar trends. Anecdotally New Zealanders are already appreciating cleaner air and louder birdsong. At the end of March, NIWA reported that rates of nitrogen dioxide (a significant air pollutant) in Auckland air had dropped by between 30 to 80 percent. Toitū has crunched a few numbers, and we estimate that the average New Zealand commuter is saving 11kg of CO2 per week at a minimum.

We also decided to look at how our own carbon ‘habit’ changed since the lockdown to provide an example of carbon emissions changes within a business. Toitū Envirocare’s CO2 emissions dropped by 11.2 tCO2e in March 2020 compared to the previous March (from 16.3 to 5.1 tCO2e). Most of this was a sharp reduction in staff air travel. Its identified opportunities for us to reduce our carbon footprint, and reconsider whether air travel is as essential as we thought.

So will the global reductions in carbon emissions last? That depends on two critical factors.

Firstly, whether the stimulus packages put together by governments result in a counter-productive leap in carbon emissions. The 2008-2009 global financial crisis had just that impact, with a historic drop in global carbon emissions of -1.3% in 2008 followed by a rebound increase of 5.1% in 2010. It’s a call to ensure that any stimulus packages are driven forward with green, sustainable principles in mind.

The second key factor will be whether behaviours disrupted by Covid-19 (particularly around transport, working practices and consumption) force a long-term change in how we live and work. This is equally complex, as many of these changes have come at a terrible economic and employment cost.

It’s too early to know what the long-term impacts of Covid-19 might be, and how this will play out across our atmosphere. What we do know is that the climate challenge will remain. The difficulties we’re facing responding to Covid-19 are just a glimpse of the challenge realising long term, meaningful climate impact – but they also highlight the opportunity for innovation and behavioural change that could continue the momentum to build our low carbon future.


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