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The Pandemic Isn’t Over, But Its Emissions Reduction Is

Carbon emissions in the first two months of 2021 were higher than in the first two months of 2020, when the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had yet to be felt in large parts of the world, according to a developer of a timely new emissions tracker.

“I can tell you that, nationwide, emissions are 3 percent higher already in the first two months of 2021 than they were in the first two—which were unaffected by the pandemic—of 2020,” said Steven J. Davis, an earth system scientist with the University of California Irvine. “We’re bouncing back.”

The world had always relied on annual emissions calculations—often arriving several months after the end of each year—until Davis and two colleagues—Zhu Liu from Tsinghua University in China and Philippe Ciais from the Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment in Paris—spent their lockdowns developing a way to gather emissions data more quickly.

“The idea here was to move away from these annual energy statistics toward something that could give us a clearer picture about how energy use was changing in what we would call near real time, so maybe within a week or two of the actual emissions,” Davis said last week in a webinar hosted by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“We found some sources for detailed information on events around the world on a daily basis,” he said, including data on airline and ship traffic, pipeline deliveries of natural gas, traffic congestion, electricity use, and the production of steel, cement and chemicals.

The result was carbonmonitor.org, which monitored 2020’s energy emissions almost as they happened. (It does not track agricultural emissions, which may be more substantial than the power sector.)

“We saw that there were modest decreases in 2020 in the power sector and industry, but the really big increases happened, as you might expect, in transportation. And that included transportation on roads, as well as aviation, which saw huge decreases in spring of last year, and those have persisted.”

Overall, emissions in the U.S. dropped by about 10 percent in 2020. Much of that was due to the pandemic, Davis said, but some of it due to a longer-term reduction in carbon intensity caused by the shift from coal to natural gas. Renewables, too, enjoyed higher use during the pandemic because they have no fuel cost. When electricity demand fell, producers were more likely to shut down fossil plants, including both coal and natural gas, because of their fuel cost.

As gas plants shut down, gas prices rose, Davis said, and that helped coal plants mount a comeback toward the end of 2020. As scientists had warned during the lockdown, emissions soon bounced back.

“By the end of the year emissions were pretty much back to where they had been in 2019,” Davis said, “despite, of course, still very high numbers of new cases of Covid.”

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