The one upside to the coronavirus pandemic


The first comprehensive study of the coronavirus pandemic shows that the planet is having the biggest-ever drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

An international team of researchers, focusing on ‘live’ data to 22 May, found that other atmospheric emissions also fell.

PM2.5, a dangerously fine particulate matter emissions fell 0.6 Mt (3.8%) whilst SO2 & NOx, a sulfur dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels – which has been linked to asthma and chest tightness – also fell. Emissions from nitrogen oxide, from fuel combustion, fell 5.1 Mt (2.9%).

Previous significant drops in greenhouse gas emissions were during the global financial crisis in 2009 (0.46Gt) and as a result of land-use changes (under the Kyoto Protocol) in 1998 (2.02Gt).

The fall in greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed partly to the shocking human impact the coronavirus pandemic has had.

More than 554,000 people have died of COVID-19 and the study shows consumption losses amount to more than US$3.8 trillion, triggering full-time equivalent job losses of 147 million.

The international group of researchers, using a global and highly detailed model, found that most directly hit was the travel sector and regions of Asia, Europe, the US, with cascading multiplier effects across the entire world economy because of globalisation. The loss of connectivity imposed to prevent the virus spreading, triggers an economic ‘contagion’ that causes major disruptions to trade, tourism, energy and finance sectors, while easing environmental pressures most in some of the hardest-hit areas.

Key reductions:

  1. Consumption: US$3.8 trillion (4.2% – GDP of Germany)
  2. Jobs: 147 million (4.2% of the global workforce)
  3. Income from wages and salaries: $2.1 trillion (6%)
  4. Most directly hit: US, China (mainland), air transport and related tourism
  5. Greenhouse gas emissions: 2.5Gt (4.6%) – larger than any drop in human history

Corresponding author Dr Arunima Malik, from Integrated Sustainability Analysis and University of Sydney Business School, said the experience of previous financial shocks showed that, without structural change, environmental gains were unlikely to be sustained during economic recovery.

“We are experiencing the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, while at the same time we have experienced the greatest drop in greenhouse gas emissions since the burning of fossil fuels began,” said Dr Malik.

“In addition to the sudden drop in climate-change inducing greenhouse gases, prevented deaths from air pollution are of major significance.

“The contrast between the socio-economic and the environmental variables reveals the dilemma of the global socio-economic system – our study highlights the interconnected nature of international supply chains, with observable global spillover effects across a range of industry sectors, such as manufacturing, tourism and transport.”

The study, published on Friday in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, is the first comprehensive study of the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence said it was wonderful to see significant applications come to life through a collaborative platform seeded a decade ago with University of Sydney funding.

“Thanks to pioneering work here at Sydney in collaboration with other world leaders in footprinting, it’s now possible to simulate the world economy quickly and accurately to see how society and the environment are impacted by changes in our consumption,” Dr Spence said.

“This research was conducted in the cloud-based Global MRIO Lab and it is these sorts of global, multidisciplinary collaborations that will help us tackle the complex issues of our time.”

The international team of researchers in the study are from: University of Sydney; Edinburgh Napier University; University of Queensland; UNSW Sydney; Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Indonesia; National Institute for Environmental Studies & Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Japan; Yachay Tech University, Ecuador; Duke University, and Beijing Normal University.

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