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

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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. Even if we do this, it is almost inevitable that we will temporarily exceed this temperature threshold but could return to below it by the end of the century. …

“The global temperature will stabilise when carbon dioxide emissions reach net zero. For 1.5°C (2.7°F), this means achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s; for 2°C (3.6°F), it is in the early 2070s.” (source)

Today, CO2 in the atmosphere has a concentration of about 420 ppm (parts per million), which translates into about 3,285 gigatons. That’s 3.3 trillion tons already up there. The path the IPCC is laying out here says we must reduce CO2 emissions by 43% by 2030. The wording here is a little tricky. Does this mean we need to remove 43% of all CO2 currently in the atmosphere? No. That would require removing, starting in 2023, about 1,400 gigatons of CO2 by the end of 2030, which works out to about 176 gigatons per year over the next eight years…

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Steve Genco

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