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USA Today ‘Fact check’: ‘The coronavirus pandemic isn’t slowing climate change’

The claim: Drops in carbon emissions aren’t enough to significantly curb climate change

With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down most global activity, a consequent crash in global carbon emissions has been widely reported.

While analysts agree the historic lockdowns will significantly lower emissions, some environmentalists argue the drop is nowhere near enough.

“Hey so it turns out that the people of earth accidentally did a global experiment to see if every individual could course correct climate change through mass personal change of habits, and it turns out, no! We can’t!,” a Facebook post shared more than 4,000 times reads.

The post shares a screenshot of another post that links to a Scientific American article with the chatter, “Despite all the ‘natural is healing’ commentary global CO2 emissions have not considerably declined during the pandemic. This suggests emissions levels relate less to individual behavior than larger structural factors only addressable through regulation.”

Projections for 2020 climate, carbon emissions

Analyses are nearly universal in finding that global carbon emissions will decline from the record peak in 2019. The declines, largely driven by a steep reduction in vehicle emissions, have been so large that photographs from space reflected the change.

The International Energy Agency, a policy advisory group to 30 member countries, projects that global carbon emissions are set to fall by 8%, or levels the world hasn’t seen for a decade.

Estimates of the full drop in carbon emissions vary as analysts adjust their models around the coronavirus pandemic, but the lowest estimates still expect about a 5% drop in emissions.

“This may sound small at first, but it is the largest drop since World War II, as emissions have generally increased year-over-year, even during recessions,” Ankur Desai, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told USA TODAY.

Desai said the drop is attributable to commercial travel and business operations; a larger decline wasn’t recorded because “much of the economy is still going on,” including manufacturing, shipping and food production.

Despite the drop, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said 2020 is already the second-warmest year on record and has a 75% chance of being the hottest ever.

“Our findings show that the annual average CO2 concentrations will still increase through this year, even though emissions are reducing,” a team from the United Kingdom’s National Weather Service said in a recent study, adding “This means that, although global emissions are smaller, they are still continuing – just at a slower rate. Additional CO2 is still accumulating in the atmosphere.”

“The reported drops in carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, while helpful, are insufficient to slow climate change,” Alex Hall, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA, told USA TODAY.

Because changes in the climate are the result of decades of accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, one year of slightly falling emissions will not counter long-term effects, Hall said.

“Those emissions took place over of the past several decades,” he said. “To affect ongoing and future climate change, the recent emissions drop would have to be sustained over a much longer period than the likely duration of the coronavirus outbreak.”

The current drop in emissions is also not yet detectable in total carbon dioxide concentrations, according to Benjamin Houlton, a professor of environmental science at University of California, Davis. “The challenge is that carbon dioxide has an average lifespan of around 100 years in the atmosphere,” he told USA TODAY.

Emissions would need to drop by more than 25% to see a total drop in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and thus slow an annual global rise in temperatures, Houlton explained.

“There isn’t a scenario where global concentrations of CO2 do not increase this year,” Rob Jackson, a professor of earth systems at Stanford University, told USA TODAY.

“If we had a magic wand that would stop all emissions from today forward, it would still take decades for the atmospheric concentrations to return to normal,” he said. “That is why we need to focus on carbon capture efforts as well.”

Kenneth Gillingham, a climate economist at Yale University, also cautioned that current emissions reductions were not sustainable, because they’re the result of economic fallout rather a planned structural reduction in carbon emissions.

“The positive environmental impacts from COVID-19 are a silver lining but not something to be applauded,” he said. Gillingham was optimistic that some people and businesses would keep new habits like reduced commuting and increased telework after the coronavirus was contained.

“The only reason emissions dropped is that we’re all stuck at home,” Jackson said. “As soon as lockdowns lift, they are likely to rise again.”

While falling emissions may not have significantly affected climate change, there have been some positive environmental outcomes from the pandemic. Air quality in cities around the world has improved over the last few months, according to preliminary studies.

“While this can’t be detected everywhere quite yet, there are signs in India and California, for example, that air quality improvements have been dramatic,” said Desai, the UW-Madison climate scientist.

Fact check:COVID-19 crisis has not created decreased long-term human environmental impact

The case study in falling carbon emissions may also hold significant lessons for climate scientists and policymakers going forward.

“Collective actions can have a real impact on emissions, rapidly,” Houlton said. “On the downside, the enormity of the challenge has been brought into greater focus: CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which is what determines the magnitude of climate change, are very difficult to stabilize or reduce.”

Our ruling: True

While it is unclear how large carbon emission reductions will be for 2020, it is certain that the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere will increase this year. Emissions have not fallen significantly enough to remedy any of the impacts on the climate, and current drops are unlikely to continue. We rate this claim TRUE because it is supported by our research.

Our fact-check sources:

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