COVID-19 and Carbon Emissions: Transforming Short-Term Reductions into Long-Term Gains

COVID-19 has triggered a significant reduction in global carbon emissions through forced confinement and disruptions to ground transportation, industry and other key contributors to CO2 emissions. Compared to 2019 mean levels, global emissions have decreased by 17% during global lockdowns, with emissions in individual countries dropping by 26% on average at their peak.

Largely speaking, African countries contribute a very small percentage to global greenhouse gas emissions due a lack of industry and power, with over half of the continent’s population still lacking access to electricity. In the lowest income countries, such as Chad, Niger and Central African Republic, the average carbon footprint is as a low as 0.1 ton per year. A notable exception includes South Africa, which represents the fourteenth largest greenhouse gas emitter globally. Its CO2 emissions can be attributed to heavy reliance on coal-fired energy, although the country is currently seeking to shift its energy supply mix toward natural gas and renewables.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the continent’s share of global emissions will rise to 4.3% by 2040, a negligible increase from current levels that stand at approximately 4%. Achieving targeted universal electricity access, while keeping carbon emissions at bay, will demand substantial investment in modern energy infrastructure and the implementation of renewable technologies to harness the continent’s vast solar, wind, hydro and geothermal resources.

Despite the current reduction in carbon emissions, long-term CO2 levels will not be affected unless accompanied by sustainable government policies that stimulate investment in carbon-reducing practices. For Africa, this means choosing whether to pave the way toward a low-carbon future and leapfrog high-emitting practices that more developed countries have employed, or to continue with such practices as a means to fuel economic and industrial growth, boost GDP and raise social welfare.

As evidenced by energy-progressive countries such as Kenya – where the clean power market has thrived due to private sector participation and strong government reform – leapfrog technologies are already present on the continent in the form of off-grid and renewable solutions. As the majority of African energy infrastructure remains to be constructed and the pace of development of low-carbon technologies accelerates, the opportunity for African nations to refrain from carbon-intensive development has never been stronger. That said, the capacity for low-income countries to sidestep any tool for expedited economic growth is limited, especially when COVID-19 has restricted the flow of foreign direct investment.

Whether COVID-19 will stimulate long-term reductions in carbon emissions or catalyze investment in green energy in Africa’s most power-hungry countries lies contingent on policies adopted by African governments as a response to COVID-19. For example, a global economic recession may curb carbon output by halting industry, yet simultaneously retard advancements in innovative green technologies. It would also hinder efforts to achieve other Sustainable Development Goals as outlined by the United Nations, including the attainment of global food security, poverty reduction, the provision of education and improvements in access to water and sanitation.

A global recession may also prompt governments to redirect resources away from environmental protection and sustainability efforts and toward unsustainable energy practices in a bid to spur jobs and stimulate the national economy. These practices include, but are not limited to, subsidizing fossil fuels, lowering vehicle emission standards or eliminating taxes on high-polluting economic activities. Alternatively, governments may stimulate economies through investment in non-fossil fuel sectors, thereby creating new jobs and fostering a global, sustainable energy transition.