Pandemic-induced shifts brought record low April CO2 emissions

Published on August 26, 2020 by Chris Galford

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As lockdowns and other pandemic-related changes swept the United States in April, the resulting mix of plummeting petroleum consumption and residential-shifting electricity consumption saw carbon dioxide emissions reach their lowest point in more than 45 years.

This news comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which released its latest Monthly Energy Review last week. That report found that petroleum and coal-supplied CO2 emissions both hit their lowest point on record since 1973. Of fossil fuels, only natural gas continued largely unabated, despite consumption-caused emissions dropping 17 percent. At the same time, emissions from natural gas rose in April by 22 percent against the previous year, which the EIA attributed to the gained market share for natural gas-fired power plants.

Stack this against CO2 emissions from petroleum and coal consumption, which fell 25 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Unsurprisingly, much of the drop can be connected to the transportation sector, which was heavily impacted by the travel restrictions in place throughout much of April.

Petroleum largely contributes to motor gasoline and jet fuel. Motor gasoline consumption accounted for 57 percent of emissions from the transportation sector in 2019. It fell to a record low in April, along with jet fuel emissions, which accounted for 13 percent of transportation sector emissions in 2019. Coal, on the other hand, took extra hits due to the large scale retirement or replacement of its facilities by other types of power generation, especially natural gas.

With all this in mind, the EIA estimated for its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook that CO2 emissions reached their lowest point in April, but will likely gradually increase over the rest of the year. Overall, though, they should remain about 11 percent lower than their 2019 levels, and probably will remain somewhat lower even in 2021.