The average Australian’s carbon footprint for 2020 may shrink because of our response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to a leading CSIRO climate scientist.
But even that good news doesn’t come without a catch.
Doctor Josep “Pep” Canadell, Senior Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO Climate Science Centre and chief of the Global Carbon Project, told PEDESTRIAN.TV that widespread workplace shutdowns, a drop in road traffic, and the reduction of international flights are likely to “make a difference, there’s no doubt about it.”
“You just need to look at some of the cities,” Dr Canadell said. “Barcelona, Spain yesterday was shut down for the first time. Basically the city went quiet. It’s humongous.”
The Spanish metropolis isn’t the only major centre to enforce a lockdown. Italy, which has tallied the most COVID-19 infections outside of China, has endured a strict national quarantine since March 9.
Now, data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite shows that emissions of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant found in car exhaust, have plummeted over northern Italy.
Even stronger signs have been observed over Wuhan, the first Chinese city locked down in response to the outbreak.
Calculating Australia’s contribution is a little more difficult. Dr Canadell said we can’t track emissions “every day or every week,” and definitive readings of atmospheric C02 over recent months are yet to appear.
What we do have are projections of gross domestic product (GDP). Dr Canadell believes those figures still go “hand in hand” with energy consumption, allowing us to draw parallels to flagging GDPs and a dip in CO2 output.
As global economies are battered by the virus, and with airlines culling flights at an unprecedented level, “CO2 emissions will slow down this year, no doubt about it,” he said.
As Australian society continues to react to the pandemic, Dr Canadell said, “In any case, yes, I think that Australians, on average, will be having a smaller carbon footprint this year.”
3. The OECD has dropped global GDP growth for 2020 from 3% (made in November 2019) to 2.4% (made in 2 March).
*If* the carbon efficiency of the economy improves on trend at 2.5%/yr, then CO₂ emissions would go down 0.3% in 2020. pic.twitter.com/HYQh0734GD
— Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) March 16, 2020
Whether those changes stick around is another question entirely. In truly rubbish news for the environment, carbon emissions have only expanded worldwide since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the last economic maelstrom to rumble the planet on a comparable scale.
Then there’s the kicker: even if the average carbon output of each Australian nosedives thanks to the threat of COVID-19, this summer’s cataclysmic bushfires belched more than enough carbon into the atmosphere to cover the difference.
“The Australian average CO2 emissions are about 420 million tonnes every year — [That’s] average for last year,” Dr Canadell said.
“So we have calculated that there’s anywhere between that amount, and double that amount, 800 million tonnes of CO2, were released during the six months of bush fires this year and last year.”
Out of the pandemic and into the fires, we guess.