Global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by a record 2.5bn tonnes this year, a reduction of 5%, as the coronavirus pandemic triggers the biggest drop in demand for fossil fuels on record.
The unprecedented restrictions on travel, work and industry due to the coronavirus is expected to cut billions of barrels of oil, trillions of cubic metres of gas and millions of tonnes of coal from the global energy system in 2020 alone, according to data commissioned by the Guardian.
This would lead to the fossil fuel industry’s biggest drop in CO2 emissions on record, in a single year eclipsing the carbon slumps triggered by the largest recessions of the last 50 years combined.
Climate experts expected global carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production to rise in 2020, from an estimated 36.8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide last year. Instead, emissions may fall by about 5%, or 2.5bn tonnes of CO2, to its lowest levels in about a decade.
Dr Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, has warned against viewing the steep decline in emissions from fossil fuels as a climate triumph.
“This decline is happening because of the economic meltdown in which thousands of people are losing their livelihoods, not as a result of the right government decisions in terms of climate policies,” he said.
“The reason we want to see emissions decline is because we want a more livable planet and happier, healthier people.”
The fossil fuel analysis undertaken by Rystad Energy, a Norwegian energy consultancy, found a sharp contraction in GDP and the abrupt halt of flights and driving could cause the world’s oil demand to fall by more than five times the drop in demand triggered by the global financial crisis in 2008.
The analysts estimate demand for crude will fall by an average of 11m barrels of oil a day this year, or 4bn barrels in total. This alone would cut 1.8bn tonnes of CO2 emissions, which would otherwise have contributed to the global climate crisis this year, according to Rystad.
The analysts also expected a slump in electricity use and heavy industry to drive demand for gas and coal down by about 2.3% each, erasing carbon emissions from each fossil fuel by 200mtonnes and 500m tonnes respectively.
Erik Holm Reiso, a senior partner at Rystad, said: “The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event for energy markets, which will have a substantial impact on the world’s total carbon emissions.
“The last time demand for oil contracted, during the financial crisis in 2008 to 2009, demand fell by 1.3m barrels of oil a day. But Covid-19 could cause oil demand to fall by more than five times as much.”
The unprecedented drop in oil demand will emerge in large part due the global aviation industry, he said. Typically there are about 99,700 commercial flights per day but the crackdown on non-essential travel to curb the spread of the virus could see air traffic fall by an average of almost a quarter over the year.
Fewer cars on the road will also dent demand for petrol and diesel by an average of 9.4% over the year, shrinking oil demand in 2020 by an average of 2.6m barrels of oil a day.
The analysts say the use of transport fuels may start recovering in the second half of the year, but found demand would lag the figures recorded last year.
Energy demand in China, the world’s biggest importer of oil, is expected to begin recovering next month, four months after the outbreak in the Wuhan province. However it will not make a full return to normal levels until September at the earliest, according to Rystad. This could stoke a slow rise in global energy demand in the second half of 2020 but a recovery to 2019 levels is not forecast for this year.
Resio said: “The real question is over the long-term impact of the virus. If we learn that remote working can work people may begin to question whether we need to take long haul flights to meet people in person. This could alter whether demand for oil ever recovers to the levels we have seen in previous years.”
However, Birol said if governments didn’t take the right measures to include support for clean energy in new economic stimulus packages “then this decline could be easily wiped out in the rebound of the economy”, once Covid-19 is brought under control.
He said: “These figures are important and impressive. But they don’t make me happy. For me it’s more important about what happens next year, and the year after that.”