COVID-19 Pandemic Affects Carbon Emissions in China

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The coronavirus, which was first detected in China, is now spreading worldwide, causing a global medical emergency and fear as hundreds of thousands are infected, and this deadly virus kills thousands.

Everything is impacted – business, travel, economy, trade, and jobs. Important international events are at risk of cancellation, such as the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, as people are advised to stay at home, avoid social interactions if possible, and self-quarantine to prevent the further spread of the virus.

If there is one positive outcome of the slowing down of human activities and business due to coronavirus, it is the dip in carbon emissions in China. However, the reason behind this news is not something to celebrate.

New York Times reported that there was a 25% drop in carbon emissions in China within three weeks after the coronavirus outbreak in the country as Factories and refineries shut down and flight ground to a halt.

The drop recorded in February 2020 is 25% lower compared to the previous year’s emissions in the same period, according to Lauri Myllyvirta of the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.  It says that the amounts from the 3-week decline in emissions in China are equivalent to New York state’s yearly emissions of about 150 million metric tons of CO2 (Plumer et al., 2020).

However, Li Shuo of Greenpeace Asia warns that China’s emissions will quickly rebound when the outbreak has been contained.  Mr Li says that in the past, China tended to compensate for lost output due to temporary shutdowns, a practice he calls “retaliatory pollution”.  He adds that this outbreak could even hinder China’s efforts to its green economy and climate change as it will focus on claiming back losses and rebuilding its economy as the virus as soon as the virus is controlled (Plumer et al., 2020).

CarbonBrief has also released a study showing a decline in China’s energy consumption and industrial reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by up to a quarter due to coronavirus.

A decline in their emission is due to the slowing down of operations and productions in its fossil-fuel intensive industries power plants (36%), steel production (15%), coal throughput (29%), coking operations (23%), oil refineries (34%), and even their aeroplane flights due to cancellations. The study says that this drop in emissions from the above activities has been their lowest two-week average in several years (Myllyvirta, 2020).

Myllyvirta (2020) reports:

  • Satellite images of the country comparing the Chinese New Year holidays of 2019 and this year 2020 has shown a significant reduction of NO2, an air pollutant associated with fossil-fuel burning in the atmosphere. Images show a significant clearing this year compared to last year of the same period.
  • However, these data might be short-lived until the coronavirus has at least been contained. China has experienced shutdowns in the past, and this one is not uncommon. The fact is China has a ‘very substantial overcapacity in all of the major CO2 emitting industries”, which means that it can catch up in no time with what emissions it has lost due to the outbreak as long as there is demand, the study says.
  • The government’s current focus is how to turn its economy back on its feet while keeping a tight reign to prevent the virus’s spread. The longer the virus spreads and more people are infected, the more damaging it will be for their economy, as its residents suffer a loss of wages and income.  

From the coronavirus outbreak, it becomes clear that China’s economy is still based heavily on fossil-fuel-intensive industries, and these industries will bounce back again, recouping their losses as soon as the virus is contained, which means more fossil-fuel emissions spewed back into the atmosphere.

Hopefully, China’s efforts to recover its losses will not deter them from its climate change adaptation efforts and investments towards a green economy, which the country has already started doing.

While human activities diminish due to the Covid-19 pandemic impacting the environment, resulting in some bits of pollution-free and smog-free air period, it is hoped that climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts shall be intentional and progressive.

Read the CarbonBrief study by clicking on the button below:


Plumer, B., Popovich, N., & Lawal, S. (2020, March 6). The Coronavirus and Carbon Emissions. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Myllyvirta, L. (2020, February 19). Analysis: Coronavirus has temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter. CarbonBrief. Retrieved from

Watts, J. (2020, March 10). Coronavirus could cause fall in global CO2 emissions. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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