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Global carbon emissions fall by 8%…where are the other 92% coming from?

Published May 6, 2020

Global carbon emissions fall by 8%…where are the other 92% coming from?

Global carbon emissions have shown a decline of almost 8% as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.  

The IEA figures also show a drop in demand which will dwarf the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. Based on an analysis of more than 100 days of real data so far this year, the IEA’s Global Energy Review includes estimates for how energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions trends are likely to evolve over the rest of 2020. 

But environmentalists are not celebrating. A startling article in Grist points out that while the global economy is at a near-standstill and despite a complete halt to road travel and flying, the world is still on track to release 92 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year.  

“I think the main issue is that people focus way, way too much on people’s personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.” 

Grist asked: Where do all of those emissions come from? And if stopping most travel and transport isn’t enough to slow down climate change, what will be? 

Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the IEA. This means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free, this still leaves 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions.  

Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people are still using the grid for domestic uses. “That power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels,” Schmidt said.  

Manufacturing, construction, and other industries account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Steel production and aluminium smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — according to Schmidt, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.  

Nick Fedson, a sustainability analyst at Alfa Energy said:

“While the cut is severe, it is comparable to the fall in emissions we need to produce every year this decade to meet the 1.5 degree Paris Agreement target. It might even come as a surprise to some that with such drastic changes to our lifestyles and economies on their knees that the fall is only 8%. This should serve as evidence that the decarbonisation necessary requires profound system change – not just travelling less.”