Mar 18, 2020 - Health

The environmental impact of China's coronavirus shutdown

Reproduced from Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals

One complicated dimension of the unfolding coronavirus tragedy is what it ultimately means for carbon emissions in China, by far the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Driving the news: A Rhodium Group analysis shows China's emissions grew by another 2.6% last year.

  • But now the curtailment of travel and industrial activity due to COVID-19 has led to steep declines this year. How much they will bounce back is unclear, Rhodium finds.

What's next: Analysts are keeping their eyes peeled for signs of what the Chinese government's economic stimulus measures will look like.

  • A "property and construction-heavy" package could increase cement and steel production, Rhodium finds. That scenario increases the economy's carbon intensity — that is, emissions per unit of economic output — as coal's market share rises for a time.
  • "If stimulus resources are directed towards non-fossil sources of energy production, the opposite could occur. What does this all mean? Essentially, it’s just too soon to tell," they conclude.

A separate new analysis of China's energy sector and economy by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies similarly finds: "[T]he focus on COVID-19 has slowed progress on other policy priorities including environmental policies and liberalisation, and a strong fossil-fuel heavy stimulus would further delay them."

By the numbers: "Coal consumption by the six largest power plants in China has fallen over 40% since the last quarter of 2019," Rhodium notes.

  • Their analysis also cites a recent estimate by the climate news and analysis site Carbon Brief, which found that in the four weeks after the Chinese New Year, China's CO2 emissions likely fell by 25%.
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