Close this search box.

Will Covid-19 Affect Carbon Dioxide Levels?

Will Covid-19 Affect Carbon Dioxide Levels?

The Coronavirus pandemic has already caused a huge downturn in many industries world-wide- especially tourism, manufacturing, and transport. Prices of oil and thermal coal have fallen dramatically. The first impact was on China, as this plot from the World Economic Forum shows:

Fig. 1: Industrial production in China

Industrial production has fallen by 13.5% in January and February, and exports have dropped by 17%. While China may be recovering from the virus, the rest of the world is not and knock-on effects from low Chinese production of essential inputs will hold back recovery in other countries.

So the question is: if atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are largely a product of fossil fuel emissions, and if fossil fuel emissions decrease, will we see a reduction in the rate of increase of CO2, and if so, how much?

This is the biggest real life experiment we are ever (I hope) likely to see.


The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, as in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa

Cape Grim in Tasmania samples the atmosphere above the Southern Ocean and shows a similar trend, with much smaller seasonal fluctuations:

Fig. 3: CO2 measurements at Cape Grim

But what we are vitally interested in, is how much we may expect CO2 concentration to change. We can show change, and remove the seasonal signal, by plotting the 12 month differences, i.e., March 2020 minus March 2019. Thus we can see how much real variation there is even without an economic downturn. And it is huge.

Fig.4: 12 month change in CO2 concentration- Mauna Loa

Fig. 5: 12 month change in CO2 concentration- Cape Grim

Not very much smaller at Cape Grim.

However, the Mauna Loa record is the one commonly referred to. Figure 6 shows the 12 month changes since 2015.

Fig.6: 12 month change in CO2 concentration since 2015- Mauna Loa

We will keenly watch the values for the remaining months of 2020, and then 2021.

My expectation?

I will be very surprised if there is much visible difference from previous years at all, as the following plots show. Figure 7 shows the time series of annual global CO2 emissions and scaled up atmospheric concentration from 1965 to 2018 (the most recent data from the World Bank):

Fig. 7: Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Concentration to 2018

Fig. 8: Carbon Dioxide Emissions as a Function of Energy Consumption to 2018

There is a very close match between emissions and energy consumption of all types- including nuclear, hydro, and renewables.

Fig. 9: CO2 Concentration as a Function of Carbon Dioxide Emissions to 2018

Again, it is close, they are both increasing, but with some interesting little hiccups….

So what is the relationship between change in atmospheric concentration and change in emissions?

Fig. 10: Percentage Change in CO2 Concentration as a Function of Percentage Change in Carbon Dioxide Emissions to 2018

Not very good correlation: 0.01.

Fig. 11: Percentage Change in Energy Use, GDP, and Carbon Dioxide Emissions to 2018

GDP fluctuates much more than energy or emissions, which are very close, and if anything tends to follow them.

Figure 12 is a time series of annual percentage change in energy and emissions and absolute change in CO2 concentration.

Fig. 12: Percentage Change in Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Absolute CO2 Change to 2018

You will note that during the three occasions (1974, 1980-82, and 2008-09) when global emissions growth went negative (as much as minus two percent), CO2 concentration barely moved, and still remained positive, and on two occasions when CO2 concentration increased by 3 ppm or more (1998 and 2016), emissions increase was much reduced.

Ah-ha, but that’s because the volume of the atmosphere is so huge compared with the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped out- according to the Global Warming Enthusiasts.

In Figure 10 I showed that there was little relationship between annual change in CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentration. Figure 13 shows what appears to have a much greater influence on CO2 concentrations: ocean surface temperature.

Fig. 13: Annual Change in CO2 Concentration as a Function of Change in Sea Surface Temperature (lagged 1 year)

Remember the correlation of CO2 with emissions in Figure 10 was 0.01. The correlation between CO2 and lagged SSTs is 0.59. That’s a pretty devastating comparison.

Figure 14 shows how in most years SST change precedes CO2 change throughout the entire CO2 record.

Fig. 14: Annual Change in CO2 Concentration and Sea Surface Temperatures

There is little evidence for CO2 increase causing SST increase, while there is evidence that SST change (or something closely associated with it) leads to CO2 change. The largest changes coincide with large ENSO events.


Therefore, I expect there may be a small decrease in the rate of CO2 concentration increase, but it won’t be much, and I will be surprised if it turns negative. A large La Nina later this year will lead to a CO2 increase a few months later, in which case there will be a larger downturn in annual CO2 change in 2021.

However, if the major cause of CO2 increase is fossil fuel consumption, there will be an extra large decrease in CO2 change in 2020 and 2021- and a noticeable jump if the global economy rebounds.

As I said, a very large real life experiment. So watch this space!