What COVID has taught us about our carbon emissions

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What COVID has taught us about our carbon emissions

In just three short months, COVID-19 – a coronavirus previously unknown before appearing in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December of last year – has swept the globe and caused over half of the world’s population to be placed in lockdown, as governments everywhere attempt to contain and slow the outbreak.

While the race to ‘flatten the curve’ and ultimately create a vaccine is at the forefront of the world’s collective consciousness, temporary measures put in place to contain the virus have already changed the ways in which society and industry operate. This suggests the pandemic may hold long-reaching consequences in areas other than public health and medicine. Experts posit that one such area already impacted by the pandemic has been the environment, with a drastic global reduction in the quantity of carbon emissions produced reported.

Following on from our recent post that visualised the daily carbon footprint of six UK cities, we wanted to highlight what impact COVID-19 has had on global carbon emissions, as well as looking at what lasting effect the pandemic might have on businesses and their attitude towards their CO2 outputs.



How COVID-19 is reducing global CO2 emissions: the early figures

With offices, factories, non-essential retail outlets, bars and restaurants closed for the duration of government lockdowns in many of the world’s largest economies, industry has slowed and global stock markets have suffered. However, alongside these worrying developments, people have also started to notice changes in the environment. Counties and cities most affected by COVID-19 are reportedly witnessing clearer, sunny skies and cleaner air.

In China for example – the epicentre of the outbreak as well as the planet’s largest carbon emitter – a 25 per cent drop in CO2 emissions during the first three months of 2020 has been reported, while national coal usage fell nearly 40 per cent. Similarly, in New York pollution levels have nearly halved since strict lockdown measures were put in place in March. The same also goes for Europe, where satellite images show signs of significantly fewer emissions over countries currently in lockdown.

With an overall drop in global carbon emissions of at least five per cent expected in 2020, the Global Carbon Project is predicting that CO2 emissions could fall by the single largest amount since World War Two as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Will COVID-19 change how businesses tackle their CO2 footprints?

With no definite end to mass lockdowns in sight for many around the world, analysing, understanding and predicting what impact this pandemic may have on the way we view climate change is difficult. However, the little we have learnt so far is fascinating and could provide an insight into how businesses may implement new energy-saving measures to make the way we work more environmentally-friendly going forward.

According to a study by Carbon Brief, the reduction in carbon emissions registered in China has coincided with only a very small reduction in economic growth. If this is mirrored in other badly-affected areas of the world, aside from leading to what is likely to be the first fall in global CO2 emissions since the 2008-09 financial crash, analysts have suggested this could bring about long-term behavioral changes, particularly in how we work and travel.

The two major changes which the COVID-19 crisis has forced businesses to address in terms of managing their workforce have been finding practical ways for employees to work from home and reducing the need for carbon-intensive travel.

One way office-based businesses have been able to tackle this is by mobilising a remote workforce. Allowing staff to work from home (WFH) where possible, and utilising online tools such as cloud data storage systems and videoconferencing, has allowed many businesses to continue relatively normally. On top of saving energy usually needed to power and heat an office, the decrease in the carbon-intensive commuting methods used by staff also reduces a business’ carbon footprint.

These WFH policies are eco-friendly procedures that businesses could implement more often in the future, following the end of the pandemic. This is to say, the COVID-19 crisis might actually be helping to put in place the systemic structures necessary for long-term emissions reduction for businesses across the globe.

For many countries around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic represents the largest public health and economic crisis in living memory. This can make staying positive and optimistic difficult right now. However, if this crisis does bring about long-lasting behavioural changes in the ways businesses operate – leading to a more proactive approach to carbon emission reductions and climate change – perhaps the smallest of silver linings can be taken from this awful pandemic.

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