CO2 levels falling as coronavirus grinds economies to a halt

19 Mar 2020

Image: © Pavlo Vakhrushev/

With people in many parts of the world staying home to contain the spread of coronavirus, the planet has seen a dramatic drop in CO2 levels.

With large numbers of people working from home and many front-facing industries shut in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, levels of CO2 globally have fallen sharply in a matter of weeks. According to the BBC, researchers in New York have suggested that carbon monoxide levels are down by nearly 50pc this week compared with last year’s levels.

It’s estimated that by May – when CO2 emissions are typically at their peak due to the addition of decomposing leaves – levels could be at their lowest since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

The researchers from Columbia University recorded a drop in CO2 over New York of between 5pc and 10pc, with a significant drop in methane also recorded.

It comes after ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5p satellite was able to reveal the decline in air pollution over Italy, one of the countries most severely affected by the pandemic.

Between 1 January and 11 March, the satellite measured nitrogen dioxide levels across Europe. It showed a dramatic reduction in the greenhouse gas, coinciding with Italy’s government ordering everyone to stay at home where possible.

Stopping emissions bouncing back

Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, said: “The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident.

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.”

While restricted movement during the coronavirus pandemic is expected to impact greenhouse gas levels for the rest of the year, there are concerns these levels will bounce back once normal activity is resumed. For instance, following the financial crash between 2008 and 2009, CO2 emissions jumped by 5pc, boosted by stimulus spending for fossil fuel use.

Speaking to the BBC, Prof Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia said governments must now act to prevent another bounce in emissions after the pandemic has subsided.

“Governments now have to be really cautious on how they re-stimulate their economies, mindful of not locking in fossil fuels again,” she said.

“They should focus those things that are ready to go that would lower emissions, like renovating buildings, putting in heat pumps and electric chargers. These are not complicated and can be done straight away, they are just waiting for financial incentives.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic