Why were CO2 emissions in 2020, the year of the global COVID shutdown, only 5% less than they were the year before?

And why is that relevant to our energy transition aspirations?

Steve Genco
12 min readAug 18, 2023

--

An image of an empty street, representing the decline in traffic during the 2020 COVID lockdown.
Eerily empty streets during the COVID shutdown. Source

We talk a lot about the need to drastically lower our annual CO2 emissions. In 2022, we dumped about 37.5 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. That was up from 37.1 gigatons in 2021, and well above 25.5 gigatons we dumped in 2000 (source). As noted in a previous post, we have only managed to lower our year-to-year CO2 emissions twice since the turn of the century, once in 2009 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and once in 2020, in the depths of the global COVID lockdown. But both declines were moderate, to say the least. CO2 emissions were only 0.25 gigatons less in 2009 than in 2008 (a 1.65% decrease), and 1.82 gigatons less in 2020 than in 2019 (a 4.9% decrease).

Compare those results with the emission reduction goals laid out by the IPCC. According to the press release accompanying the IPCC Working Group III report published in late 2022:

“In the scenarios we assessed, limiting warming to around 1.5°C (2.7°F) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030; at the same time, methane would also need to be reduced by about a third…

--

--

Steve Genco

Steve is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019) & Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013). He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.