Coronavirus outbreak sees China's CO2 emissions plummet

coronavirus under microscope

While the covid-19 coronavirus continues to spread around the world, one aspect of the outbreak throws light on an already-established long-term threat to our way of life. The Switch takes a look at how the nano-meter-sized virus has reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by hundreds of millions of tonnes.

Important: Make sure you check official sources like the UK government and the World Health Organisation to ensure you get the most accurate and updated information regarding the developing situation.

What impact has coronavirus had on China’s CO2 emissions?

An estimated 89,000 people in over 50 countries are thought to have contracted the virus, which has killed over 3,000 people so far.

As the world holds its breath waiting to see if governments and health care systems can contain covid-19 or if it will become an endemic disease we’ll have to learn to live with, research has found the coronavirus has made a significant impact on China’s contribution to atmospheric carbon levels.

Although initially slow to recognise the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus, once the danger was clear, China brought in tough measures in a bid to halt the circulation of the disease.

Curfews, quarantines for whole cities and a severe curtailment of business and industry, are some of the steps that have been taken. Of course, such actions can't be implemented without a sizable blow to the planet’s second-biggest economy.

A third of all manufacturing takes place in China and it exports more than any other country.

For “the world’s factory”, the scale of this necessary disruption to production has global repercussions.

Carbon emissions from China plummeted by at least 100 million metric tonnes over a two-week period in the middle of February according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

The country emitted about 400m tonnes of CO2 over the same time-frame in 2019 meaning the coronavirus appears to have reduced emissions by 25%.


Why has Covid-19 lowered China’s carbon output?

The restrictions put in place by the Chinese authorities to deal with the coronavirus have led to a fall in energy demand and therefore a huge decrease in the burning of coal and oil.

Output from China’s coal-fired plants hasn’t fallen as low since 2016 and it has been five years since the country’s steel industry saw such decreased production.

In normal times, China imports and burns more oil than any other country, but activity at its most important refineries has dropped to levels last seen in 2015.

On top of these cuts, there has been an estimated 70% fall in domestic flights compared to January and international flights leaving the Chinese mainland have seen a drop of 50-90% in passenger numbers.

While a slowdown in economic activity and a resultant reduction in emissions is expected over the Chinese Lunar New Year, which began on the 25th of January, economic activity in China usually picks up after the week-long holiday.

However, the government decided to prolong the vacation by up to a week in many places to keep the virus from spreading further. Around a hundred million people are still unable to work because of the coronavirus quarantine.


How significant will the impact of covid-19 be on long-term CO2 output?

According to a study by the European Climate Foundation’s Carbon Brief website, the actions taken by the Chinese authorities has led to “reductions of 15 percent to 40 percent in output across key industrial sectors."

"This is likely to have wiped out a quarter or more of the country's CO2 emissions over the past two weeks, the period when activity would normally have resumed after the Chinese New Year holiday," the report said.

CO2 (carbon dioxide) is not the only pollutant to decrease under the coronavirus containment campaign.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) has also observed a recent decrease of PM2.5, one of the most harmful air pollutants.

CAMS said its data "clearly shows a reduction of about 20-30% in surface PM2.5 over large parts of China" in February 2020 compared to the same month in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Data recorded by NASA and European Space Agency satellites shows a significant fall in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over the Chinese mainland.

NASA scientists said the drop in NO2 emissions can be observed beginning in the area of Wuhan, where the virus outbreak originated and then spreading out across the vast nation.

Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA, said it was the first time she had seen “such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”

As with CO2 reductions in NO2 are to be expected over the Lunar New Year but, again like CO2, emissions Fei Liu said the lower levels did not return to normal after the holiday.

“This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer,” she said.

“I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus.”

NASA Air Quality Researcher Fei Liu

Of course, the country can’t endure a lock-down for an overly-prolonged period and Beijing has already started encouraging businesses and factories to reopen.

This means the fall in emissions will only be a temporary blip for the planet’s largest emitter of CO2. The reduction to date represents just a 1% decrease in China’s typical annual total.

Indeed, as the crisis over the virus abates the government will likely seek to make up for lost time and pressure industry to boost production to compensate.

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