When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, it affected nearly every industry as countries around the world closed their borders to prevent the spread of the virus.

Businesses shuttered, domestic and international travel came to a halt, and commuters became infrequent as most people began to work or learn from home. These sudden stops caused a decrease in economic activity and fossil fuel consumption.

That’s why a reader asked Curious Texas: With the world having now been significantly shut down for more than a year, how has the climate been affected?

According to the International Energy Agency, global CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% in 2020 — about two gigatons — due to a sharp decrease in demand for carbon-intensive fuels like coal and oil.

It was five times greater than the 2009 decline that followed the global economic crisis, and it is the largest decline reported by the agency. And as demand for oil and coal decreased, renewable energy use increased 3%, the agency reported.

However, as vaccines began to roll out and restrictions were lifted, CO2 emissions started to rebound late last year and into 2021. The agency projects that global carbon emissions will grow by 4.8% this year as demand for coal and oil grows.

CO2 emissions began to increase late last year and into 2021 as vaccines began to foll out and coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Above, a factory in Ajmer, in northern India, belches smoke from its chimney.
CO2 emissions began to increase late last year and into 2021 as vaccines began to foll out and coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Above, a factory in Ajmer, in northern India, belches smoke from its chimney.(HIMANSHU SHARMA / AFP via Getty Images)

“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022.”

The agency said that while there is a rebound, U.S. CO2 emissions in 2021 are expected to stay below 2019 levels.

Luke Metzger is executive director of Environment Texas, an organization that campaigns for policies that benefit the environment. Metzger said the 2020 decline in emissions had a minor impact on the climate, but not enough to reduce pollution as a whole.

In order to avoid the worst effects of global warming — including more frequent and severe extreme weather — Metzger said an overarching goal for many countries and organizations is to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to kind of implement the policies and make the investments that would lead us to sustained reductions in emissions,” he said.

Many countries and organizations aim to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Above, windmills line in a field outside the village of Klein Buenzow, in northeastern Germany.
Many countries and organizations aim to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Above, windmills line in a field outside the village of Klein Buenzow, in northeastern Germany.(ODD ANDERSEN / AFP via Getty Images)

Those policies include investing in wind and solar power, bolstering transportation with electric cars and moving toward energy-efficient homes, Metzger said.

In May 2020, the Dallas City Council approved the Comprehensive Environmental & Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the effects of climate change. The plan has more than 90 action items to address issues such as renewable energy, green spaces and transportation.

Katy Evans, a climate coordinator for the city’s Comprehensive Environmental & Climate Action Plan, said the team has made progress on 48 action items in the last year. Though the pandemic made some action items — like community events — more difficult, Evans said none of the goals have changed.

“We received additional money in the budget for CECAP initiatives,” she said. “CECAP has largely been unaffected by overall budget constraints. It’s just kind of shifted the order of operations in terms of implementation, just a little bit.”

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