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How coronavirus could halt world’s emissions growth

Humans have seemed unable to get a handle on climate change, with global emissions of greenhouse gases continuing to grow every year. But a microscopic pathogen, so structurally simple that it does not even have a single cell and is arguably not even alive, may be capable of accomplishing what our political leaders thus far cannot.

British Airways
Halting emissions growth: An almost empty British Airways passenger plane flies from Milan to London on March 5, 2020. Photo credit: Laurel Chor/Getty Images

Experts say that greenhouse gas emissions in China, the world’s largest current contributor to climate change, are down 25 percent in recent weeks as the country conducted a massive societal intervention to stop the spread of the virus. Air pollution is also down, due to decreased driving and less coal burning.

Meanwhile, as the virus enters a second phase, spreading beyond China to other countries, it is dampening global demand for oil and air travel, and threatening overall global economic growth. All of these are strongly linked to greenhouse gas emissions.

While it’s too early to say for sure, if these trends continue, the coronavirus could join rare company. Since the year 1900, greenhouse gas emissions have risen dramatically. During that period, the escalation of emissions has been nearly constant, with 2019 projected to set yet another record high. And when significant declines have happened, it’s usually been because of world wars, sweeping economic contractions or large-scale geopolitical events such as the fall of the Soviet Union.

When it comes to an emissions decline, “whatever the driver, it will have to be big, and global,” said Glen Peters, an expert on carbon emissions at Norway’s Center for International Climate Research and a contributor to the Global Carbon Project.

The last time global emissions fell noticeably was in the wake of the Great Recession, from 2008 to 2009 – when U.S. GDP fell 4.3 percent, unemployment doubled from 5 to 10 percent, housing prices crashed and the stock market lost, at the nadir, more than half of its value.

But even in that moment of economic and societal trauma, the global emissions decline was fleeting. Emissions started to rise again almost immediately.

Still, if the current emissions contraction that happened first in China spreads around the world, and is sustained, then it might cause a similar impact.

Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the nation’s emissions have increased every year for the past three until coronavirus paralysed entire regions.

“If there is a bright side to the coronavirus,” she said, “it is that the drop in industrial production, manufacturing, and automobile use will produce a noticeable drop in CO2 emissions for at least the first two months of the year.”

Granted, the bounce back could be rapid if China tries to juice its economy through some type of stimulus once the situation stabilises. South Korea has already enacted roughly $10 billion in stimulus in the wake of the virus’s spread, and Italy is planning an infusion of $8.4 billion.

“The reductions are substantial, but they are most certainly only temporary, and there will likely be a rebound effect,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert on China’s energy sector at Georgetown University. “Once people go back to work and factories restart, they may try to make up for lost time. This could result in a surge in emissions.”

Still, the change since the start of the year in the world’s most greenhouse-gas-intensive economy has been striking to behold.

Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, or NO2 – which are produced by cars, trucks and energy-intensive industries – are down about 40 percent during the same stretch, he found. In addition, small-particle air pollution also has fallen across the country.

Myllyvirta said that while emissions have rebounded a bit over the past week, “it’s still very far from normal levels.”

“Oil demand and demand for things like coal and steel have fallen,” he said. “The impact on many of the major industrial sectors is very profound.”

He said sales of real estate are likely to fall sharply over the first quarter of the year in China. The outbreak will impact construction projects and investment decisions for months to come, all factors that could hinder economic growth and slow emissions.

The effects seen in China may ripple around the world.

The International Air Transport Association recently announced that global January air travel, while still showing growth, saw “the lowest monthly increase since April 2010.” And February’s figures could be even worse.

United Airlines recently announced plans to cut domestic flights by 10 percent and international ones by 20 percent for April and May. It’s asking staff to volunteer for unpaid leaves to help adjust for the decline in revenue.

Aircraft account for roughly 3 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so changes here could have a major impact.

“I expect where the coronavirus is going to be hitting is one of the more energy intensive aspects of the economy, which is travel,” said Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University.

“I do expect emissions to decline,” Gillingham added. “Not that I think that that is a particularly good thing in this context, because the coronavirus is an absolute tragedy.”

Meanwhile, OPEC and the International Energy Agency both recently lowered their forecasts for oil demand in 2020, thanks to coronavirus. On Thursday, OPEC proposed cutting production by an additional 1.5 million barrels a day through the end of the year, which would be the biggest cut since the 2008 financial crisis.

The OECD, meanwhile, said that in a scenario of broad global spread of the virus, economic growth could only tally 1.5 percent in 2020, as opposed to a prior prediction of 3 percent before the outbreak occurred.

That itself is revealing, though, notes Peters from Norway’s Centre for International Climate Research.

“If global growth goes from 3% to 1.5%, then it is very low by historical standards, but nowhere near as low as negative growth from the financial crisis,” Peters said in an email.

From 2008 to 2009, during that seismic economic event, global emissions declined about 1.4 percent, according to figures from Peters and the Global Carbon Project. That’s equivalent to a reduction of about 450 million tons of carbon dioxide.

But then growth quickly resumed, and 2018′s global emissions, nine years after that downturn in 2009, were 16 percent higher. That’s equivalent to an additional 5 billion tons of CO2 per year.

By Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens (The Washington Post)

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