12 january 2021

Climate change
US greenhouse gas emissions fell 10% in 2020 as Covid curbed travel

But emissions reductions came at huge cost and will likely rebound as vaccines are distributed, authors of report say

Oliver Milman in New York, The Guardian, Tue 12 Jan 2021

Planet-heating emissions in the US fell by more than 10% in 2020, a record drop generated by extraordinary reductions in travel and industrial activity in the teeth of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.

The historic jolt to American life, which has resulted in more than 375,000 deaths and a huge surge in joblessness, caused many states to impose travel restrictions and curbs on business activity. This resulted in greenhouse gas emissions dropping by 10.3% last year, according to a new estimate by Rhodium Group.

It is the largest annual drop in emissions since the second world war, outstripping a temporary downturn in the 2009 recession, and has forced US carbon pollution to its lowest level in three decades. The reduction will also push the US toward its goal of reducing emissions by at least a quarter by 2025, based in 2005 levels, that it submitted as part of the Paris climate agreement.

Joe Biden, the president-elect, has vowed to rejoin the accords after Donald Trump removed the US from the Paris deal.

Emissions from the power sector fell by 10%, fueled by a collapse in the coal sector, the Rhodium analysis found, while emissions from transportation plummeted as people stayed at home due to Covid-19. At the peak of lockdowns in April and May, jet fuel demand was down 68% compared to 2019 levels, while gasoline used in cars dropped by 40%.

However, the authors pointed out the emissions reductions had come at huge cost and will likely rebound as vaccines are distributed.

“The emission reductions of 2020 have come with an enormous toll of significant economic damage and human suffering,” wrote authors Kate Larsen, Hannah Pitt and Alfredo Rivera.

“With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well.”

Rob Jackson, a climate expert at Stanford University, said the emissions drop was in line with his own expectations and that emissions caused by temporary lockdowns will “bounce back quickly”.

But he added that the accelerating transition from coal to renewable energy such as solar and wind “is more permanent and will move us a little closer to the US goals of the Paris accord. This drop from the electricity sector won’t disappear when our Covid nightmare finally ends.”

Global emissions need to drop by at least 7% every year this decade if the world is to meet its agreed targets and avoid more extreme heatwaves, wildfires and flooding, scientists say.

An environmentally focused recovery from the pandemic is seen as a crucial way to do this, through a swift end to fossil fuel use and the transformation of cities into greener, less car-dominated places, although there is evidence that stimulus payments by governments are bolstering the use of coal, oil and gas.

“Reducing the economy by killing the economy and putting millions of people out of work isn’t what anyone wants and it’s pernicious to celebrate this as it reinforces the false idea that we can only reduce emissions by harming the economy,” said John Sterman, of the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“We need to use this horrible pandemic to rebuild an economy that is currently destroying our future, increasing inequality and harming our health. The most important thing is to focus investment on speeding the transition to renewables, as well as focus on opportunities such as energy efficiency.”

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