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COVID-19: Its effects on China’s carbon emissions

Since the coronavirus outbreak, China’s carbon emissions have plunged. Explore the unexpected environmental effects of coronavirus.

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As the numbers of positive coronavirus cases skyrocket, you’d be hard-pressed to remember a time when the news featured anything other than images of busy hospitals, masked city dwellers, and handwashing guidance.

Cast your minds back a month or two and you might remember Greta Thunberg taking centre stage, EU leaders agreeing to carbon neutrality by 2050, and the tragic effects of climate change by way of the Australian wildfires.

Whilst the global economy takes a huge hit due to the effects of coronavirus, are things on the up for the environment?

Where are emissions dropping off

The spread of COVID-19 is still primarily affecting China, where the disease is thought to have originated. China’s drop in factory production, increased trading restrictions and decreased demand for travel has had a knock-on effect on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) in Finland have reported that China’s carbon emissions have dropped by 100 million metric tonnes over the past two weeks.

China on lockdown

The week following Chinese New Year usually sees emissions and output drop as the country closes down, but this year the usual fall in energy has extended indefinitely, with no sign of bouncing back.

The outbreak and spread of the disease have led to a marked decrease in demand for coal and oil, with coal consumption dropping by 36% since the outbreak.

According to reports from Carbon Brief, the drop in the use of coal and crude oil together suggest a CO2 emission decrease of around a quarter or more compared with the same two-week period last year.

As well as power plants, the limited operating capacity and closures of Chinese factories are causing disruption to supply chains around the world. It’s thought that factories will prioritise large orders from big firms meaning smaller businesses will feel the loss of inventory the most.

Whilst China is taking the biggest hit, reports have shown that production is plunging worldwide, with global manufacturing output dropping to its lowest since 2009.

Clearing the air

As manufacturing decline is having profound effects on emissions on the ground, ongoing travel restrictions are slashing emissions in the skies.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that it expects the demand for international air travel to fall by 5% this year.

This number, they expect, could be even higher in Asia.

Most commercial airlines have either drastically cut back or suspended flights to China, and hundreds of companies following the likes of Facebook and Google have banned all business travel to China.

Decrease in demand and cutbacks mean significantly fewer planes in the sky and a drop in carbon emissions.

Now that airlines are suspending flights to other areas hit hard by the virus, including northern Italy and South Korea, the decrease in carbon emissions from air travel may be far from over.

Back to business

Although these changes show very real emission dips, as far as China is concerned, this isn’t the first time the country has faired a dramatic decrease in production.

After the 2008 global financial crisis, China suffered from marked economic slowdown but recovered rapidly by introducing a stimulus plan which included maximising and doubling down on the production of heavy polluters. It successfully jump-started their economy but any environmental gains were quickly lost.

Business as usual and a quick recovery is riskier this time around as the government will be extremely wary of causing a second wave of the virus. But it’s hard to imagine China won’t come back fighting to compensate for what’s been lost.

In the meantime, scientists and environmentalists will be watching with interest.


If you’d like to delve in deeper to the effects of coronavirus and learn more about its prevention, spread, and a potential cure, join the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s free COVID-19 course today.

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