COVID-19 Emissions Reductions: Are They Enough?

Updated: Apr 11

Opinion by Toni Steele.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw emissions plummet, especially in the first half of 2020 [1]. These reductions are not grounds for complacency. Rather, they are a call for action. The global community must take this opportunity to advocate for structural change in the energy sector. We need to reduce emissions if we are to meet international climate targets and protect our environment. Millions of people do not need to die to achieve emissions reductions.


The world came to a standstill when COVID-19 hit. People stayed home from work, international travel was limited, and the economy slowed. In the first half of 2020, there was an 8.8% reduction in global carbon emissions compared to 2019 levels [2]. Studies analyzing 2020 as a whole estimate that global greenhouse emissions decreased by 2.4 billion tons due to COVID-19: a 7% reduction from 2019 [3]. While specific figures for emissions reductions vary by study and methodology, all indicators point to substantial emissions reductions due to COVID-19 [4]. We can be happy that 2020 brought emissions reductions, but it does not warrant climate change complacency. COVID-19 emissions reductions are not enough to solve climate change.


April 2020 carbon emissions were down 17% compared to April 2019 emissions [5]. Some of the biggest decreases in emissions came from transportation and the power sector [6]. This decline is consistent with the timing of many lockdowns worldwide. Global energy demand significantly reduced in response to COVID-19, albeit unwillingly. There were also significant emissions reductions in the industry and aviation sectors [7].


"...COVID-19 is an opportunity for governments to use their stimulus packages as green economy investments. This is especially relevant as solar, wind, and geothermal energy storage are at record low prices [12]. If the global community takes this opportunity to invest in greener technologies, there could be a structural shift towards a more renewable global energy sector that is not reliant on fossil fuels."


These emissions reductions came at a great cost and will not persist in the long-term. Most carbon emissions are already rebounding as restrictions are lifted. For example, China’s May 2020 emissions were 5.4% larger than its May 2019 emissions [8]. Without structural change, countries will likely return to the status quo. This is unacceptable.


There is currently an international dialogue about providing green stimulus packages in response to COVID-19 [9]. This would mean that COVID-19 stimulus money would help revive economies and further climate goals simultaneously [10]. If this option is not chosen, and countries invest in stimulus packages that are not conducive to climate change goals, associated emissions levels might exceed pre-pandemic levels [11]. Therefore, COVID-19 is an opportunity for governments to use their stimulus packages as green economy investments. This is especially relevant as solar, wind, and geothermal energy storage are at record low prices [12]. If the global community takes this opportunity to invest in greener technologies, there could be a structural shift towards a more renewable global energy sector that is not reliant on fossil fuels.


COVID-19 is a call for action rather than inaction. Long-term emissions reductions will only be achieved with structural and transformational changes in the economy and energy production systems [13]. We have not done enough by working at home for a year. We have not done enough by decreasing our travel this year. We have not done enough. We need widespread structural and transformational changes in our economy if we wish to reduce our emissions while returning to normal levels of human activity. COVID-19 stimulus packages are an opportunity for governments to invest in green options while they are already investing billions of dollars. Climate change needs to be a continued priority.

  1. Liu, Zhu, Philippe Ciais, Zhu Deng, Ruixue Lei, Steven Davis, Sha Feng, Bo Zheng, et al. 2020. “Near-Real-Time Monitoring of Global CO2 Emissions Reveals the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Nature communications 11(1): 5172–5172. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18922-7. At 1.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Newburger, Emma. 2020. “Covid Pandemic Drove a Record Drop in Global Carbon Emissions in 2020.” CNBC, December 10. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/11/covid-record-drop-global-carbon-emissions-2020.html.

  4. Liu et al., “Near-Real-Time Monitoring of Global CO2 Emissions.”; Le Quere, Corinne, Robert Jackson, Matthew Jones, Adam Smith, Sam Abernethy, Robbie M Anew, Anthony J De-Gol, et al. 2020. “Temporary Reduction in Daily Global CO2 Emissions During the COVID-19 Forced Confinement.” Nature climate change 10(7): 647–653. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x.

  5. Le Quere et al., “Temporary Reductions in Daily CO2 Emissions.” At 647.

  6. Liu et al., “Near-Real-Time Monitoring of Global CO2 Emissions.” At 5.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid, 7.

  9. Berkeley Conversations. 2020. “Climate Change and COVID-19: Can this crisis shift the paradigm?” YouTube Video, 1:02:31. April 27. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEk0sjlcNXs.

  10. Liu et al., “Near-Real-Time Monitoring of Global CO2 Emissions.” At 7.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Berkeley Conversations, “Climate Change and COVID-19.”

  13. Liu et al., “Near-Real-Time Monitoring of Global CO2 Emissions.” At 7.