Air Clean Up

  • China's 2020 Pollution Exceeded 2019 Levels Despite Lockdown

China's 2020 Pollution Exceeded 2019 Levels Despite Lockdown

Mar 30 2021

China’s carbon emissions for 2020 exceeded those recorded in 2019, despite the fact that the country imposed a brief but stringent period of lockdown on its populace. While China was one of the only nations to witness an uptick in its pollution levels over the whole year, the statistics from the tail end of 2020 do not make for encouraging reading in many places around the world.

Strong economic recovery in the final quarter of last year, alongside an absence of tangible energy reforms, were the main reasons why emissions returned to or exceeded the same levels recorded in 2019. If similar patterns are allowed to continue this year and beyond, it could jeopardise the objective of limiting global warming to an absolute maximum of 2°C (and a preferable ceiling of 1.5°C) as agreed upon at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit.

Business as usual in China

China was the sole major economy in the world to experience growth last year, despite being the source of the coronavirus pandemic. That resilience in the face of the crisis and the resurgence of its economy after a month-long lockdown of the country meant that emissions throughout the whole of 2020 actually eclipsed those from 2019 by more than 0.5%.

Given that China is responsible for a quarter of all carbon emissions in the world, it’s unfortunate for our environmental targets that it was one of the few countries to emerge from the pandemic largely unscathed. However, the country’s shock commitment to become carbon neutral by 2060 does provide some grounds for optimism going forwards.

Other nations disappoint as well

One of the more positive environmental implications of coronavirus was a temporary drop-off in emissions in 2020, as industries shut down and passenger cars were removed from roads. Indeed, total emissions dropped by a whopping two billion tonnes of CO2 last year, which is the largest fall in recorded history. More than half of the decline was down to reduced demand for aviation and road transportation fuel.

However, the end of the year saw the status quo being resumed in many places. In Brazil, where lockdown restrictions were laxer than many other countries, emissions in Q4 of 2020 exceeded those of the same period in 2019. The same was true in India, where measures were relaxed from September onwards. Although the USA – the country hit the hardest by COVID-19 – saw an overall decline of 10% in its emissions, December levels of CO2 were similar to those recorded the year previous.

Reasons to be cheerful

While those statistics might dishearten environmentalists across the globe, it’s not too late for politicians, corporations and individuals to make a difference. Incoming American President Joe Biden has already signalled his intention to do just that by ratifying the Paris Agreement once more and publishing an ambitious portfolio of proposals, while the EU’s Green New Deal is also encouraging.

That being said, time is certainly running out for us to effect change. Without wholesale changes to the way we travel, work and live in the imminent future, we will soon pass the point of no return when it comes to global warming. With that in mind, it’s imperative that we all work together to ensure that 2019 is the absolute peak of CO2 emissions and that pollution continues to fall from here on in.


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