COVID-19 lockdown had 'negligible' impact on global warming, researchers find

But it could be our best chance to go green.
But it could be our best chance to go green. Photo credit: Getty

New research has found COVID-19 lockdowns will have a "negligible" impact on global warming -  but the aftermath of the pandemic could be the world's best chance to rebuild the environment.

Researchers from the University of Leeds analysed mobility data from 123 countries to estimate emission changes from February to June 2020. 

They found emissions were at their lowest in April when much of the world was under lockdown with nitrogen oxides plummeting by 30 percent.  

In New Zealand and across the world flights were grounded and traffic was close to non-existent as people were ordered to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus.

New Zealand entered coronavirus Alert Level 4 lockdown on March 26. All non-essential businesses closed, and people were urged to stay home and save lives.

During lockdown New Zealand's C02 emissions were down 41.1 percent and air pollution dropped by 75 percent compared to the same point last year. 

In April global daily emissions of carbon dioxide dropped by 17 percent - with just under half of that global reduction coming from changes in land transport.

In Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, air quality noticeably improved and NASA satellite imagery showed that the average density of tropospheric nitrogen dioxide - a toxic chemical that reduces immunity - dropped significantly below normal levels.

A NASA satellite image.
A NASA satellite image. Photo credit: NASA

However as lockdowns began to lift it became apparent these changes were short lived - which is reflected in Friday's report.

The report found the effect of the drop in emissions will be near insignificant - an estimated overall temperature drop of 0.0050.01C by 2050.

Professor Dave Reay, chair of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, says the results are not surprising "given the long lifetime of carbon dioxide and the massive pool of fossil carbon already swilling around in our atmosphere."

However by modelling different rebuild scenarios researchers found the world's best chance of bringing down global temperatures is to focus on a "green recovery" in the wake of COVID-19.

This is where minds should be focused, says Reay.

"Choose a powerful green recovery of renewables and energy efficiency and there's an even chance of meeting the Paris Climate Goals and avoid devastating climate change impacts for millions."

The Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2 C this century.

The research found if the world focuses on incentivising low-carbon businesses, jobs and technology then keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees C could be possible. 

The research has been heralded by scientists who say it is a sombre warning for how the world must rebuild.

Catherine Leining, commissioner at the New Zealand Climate Change Commission says the insights from the research are clear.

"Shifting investment away from fossil fuels and into low-carbon technologies is essential to 'bend the curve' of global emissions permanently downward and avoid dangerous levels of climate change," she said in a statement on Thursday.

"Lockdown' must not mean 'lock in' to the fuels and technologies of our past. "