By Ishita Moghe, March 2 2021—
For the past decade, global carbon dioxide emissions have been rising by one per cent every year. The pandemic this year changed our patterns of energy consumption and production, bringing down carbon dioxide emissions by 8.8 per cent in the first half of 2020 when compared to the same period in 2019. To put this in perspective, this decrease is greater than the yearly decrease reported as a consequence of World War II. This significant decline in greenhouse gas emissions is attributed both to decreased ground transportation — as fewer people traveled to work every day and air transportation was limited — as well as decreased consumption from the energy sector. Interestingly, renewables are the only source of energy that experienced an increased demand in 2020.
Decreased emissions also improved air quality globally, with a marked decline in surface nitrogen dioxide concentrations reported throughout Europe and North America. Decreased water and air pollution, as well as a lessened burden on tourist destinations, is allowing for ecological restoration in many parts of the world. Heavily visited regions throughout Asia and Europe reported massive improvements in water quality, bringing rivers usually polluted with sewage and industrial chemicals to the standard of drinkable water. During the lockdown, the canals of Venice and the Bay of Bengal saw a return of dolphins in their waters for the first time in a decade.
These changes are temporary with carbon dioxide emissions picking up again to their expected rates as most countries reopen their usual functioning. To make the lasting changes needed to decrease and maintain our carbon dioxide emissions, structural changes need to be implemented. Surface transport is an interesting example of how swiftly government policies and economic changes can decrease greenhouse gas production. Though this is a promising avenue to pursue as more metropolitan cities begin to adopt a transportation model based on public transit, pedestrians and cyclists, the mounting pressure to make changes in nonrenewable energy consumption should be rightfully placed on the industry.
Although this year’s decreased greenhouse gas emissions were temporary and unwanted, the global pandemic response gave us a natural experiment into what is actually necessary to help maintain the health of our planet. As the demand for renewables continues to increase, the decarbonization of transport and decreased reliance on nonrenewables in industry may help us get closer to replicating the environmental effects of 2020.