While countries around the world imposed strict travel bans and lockdowns to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—the leading cause of global warming—had the biggest yearly drop on record, according to an annual report from the Global Carbon Project.
The Global Carbon Budget 2020, published in early December, reports that global carbon emissions fell by 7 percent in 2020, with a total decline in global emissions estimated at 2.4 billion metric tons.
Researchers say the emissions are down mainly because more people stayed home and traveled less by car or plane this year. For example, at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns during April, global emissions from “surface transport” (such as car journeys) fell by approximately half. While some people have started to hit the road again for weekend getaways or on socially distanced road trips, the report found that emissions from “road transport” were still below their 2019 levels by the end of the year, which accounted for the largest share of the decrease in 2020 global emissions.
Another element of the global decrease: emissions from aircraft, which the report says declined by 75 percent in 2020. Still, this had a smaller effect than emissions from surface transport because aviation accounts for “just 2.8 percent of global emissions,” according to the report.
Still, the findings show that the world will have put 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the air by the end of 2020, down from 40.1 billion tons in 2019.
Researchers said it’s too early to predict how much emissions will rebound in 2021 and beyond, but they expect emissions will increase as people begin to travel more frequently after the pandemic. “Of course, lockdown is absolutely not the way to tackle climate change,” report coauthor Corinne Le Quere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. The increase in emissions will be largely influenced by government actions to stimulate the global economy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic without continuing growth in carbon emissions by, for example, increasing factory production. In addition to larger industry changes, researchers also say that individual efforts to alter our own behavior and decrease our carbon footprint can make a monumental impact.
“I am optimistic that we have, as a society, learned some lessons that may help decrease emissions in the future,” Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told German channel DW News. “For example, as people get good at telecommuting a couple of days a week or realize they don’t need quite so many business trips, we might see behavior-related future emissions decreases.”
How to decrease your own carbon footprint
Klima (meaning “climate” in German) is a newly launched app that makes it simple to calculate and offset your carbon footprint. Available on Android and iOS, the Klima app determines your carbon footprint based on a quick survey of lifestyle questions like “How many flights do you take per year?” and “What kind of shopper are you?” combined with a national emissions baseline for the country you live in. (The average American’s footprint is 16.1 tons, according to the app.)
Next, the app prompts you to choose your “offset strategy” by supporting verified climate projects to reduce your carbon emissions elsewhere. You can support tree-planting projects in Panama or enable solar power efforts in South Africa, among other options. When you purchase a Klima subscription (roughly $21 per month), the app will allocate 70 percent of your payments toward the offsetting projects you choose. (The rest goes toward app development costs and spreading the word about the project.) Klima users also receive personalized tips and ideas for how to reduce their footprint and become carbon neutral.
Of course, offsetting your carbon footprint isn’t something that only some people should be able to afford. If you can’t afford a complete plan for $18 per month, the app’s FAQ page says to email email@example.com and they’ll provide you with a custom reduced plan.