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How a virus could decrease CO2 emissions


The coronavirus has led to a 25% decrease of CO2 emission in China as manufacturing plants shut down, or significantly decreased production. Image credit: Carbon Brief

Lots of discussion and news on the coronavirus, ranging from a terrifying epidemic/pandemic to just another flu-like epidemic, just slightly more dangerous (I am leaning more on the second).

One point, however, is clear. The influence on this “flu” on the business and on way of living of people in several countries is big. I was impressed seeing the graphic produced by Carbon Brief showing the use of coal in China in January and February. Coal is still a major energy source in China so it is a good indicator of overall energy use.

Every year there is a decline in consumption at the Chinese New Year (end of January) when most Chinese are on vacation and manufacturing plants slow down (usually stopping production and engaging in plant maintenance). After the New Year production goes back to normal and so does the use of coal.

Not so this year. The effect of the coronavirus containment measures have started to be visible by middle of January and have been clear after the New Year vacation period. Manufacturing did not resume at full speed as in previous years and the coal consumption has stayed low, at the level of the New Year vacation week (orange line). This has resulted in a decrease of CO2 emission by 25%, a good thing, probably, for the planet, as well as an indicator of unpredictable factor on the economy.

The disruption in the supply chain does not stop to China, rather it is affecting the world. Apple, for one, has warned of lower than expected sales due to shortage in supply (as well as lower sales in China since shops have closed).

It is today’s news the close down of air traffic from Europe to the US and the signiifcant reduction of air traffic in Europe (with the close down of several air trave to Italy). Italy is under a lock down that is dramatically affecting people way of life, disrupting the economy and this seems to be just the starting of what can become a situation affecting several other countries in Europe over the coming weeks.

It should also be noted that this exceptional situation is pushing companies and institutions to make much more use of the cyberspace, as movement in the physical space is constrained. All university education, lectures, teaching, exams and even theses defences are taking place via video conference and remote teaching platform. Many companies have activated “smart working”. This is going to create a new culture or at least provide a hands on nationwide experiment of life -and business- in the cyberspace.

For a day to day update in the Italian diffusion of the virus check this interesting data rendering.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. I have received a private comment on this post that I feel I have to share and respond publicly. I am not mentioning the name of the originator to preserve privacy.
    “Dear Saracco I am concerned that this post may be interpreted as trading lives for carbon emissions, which will hurt reputation of IEEE and yourself. May I suggest to remove the post. Regards”
    First of all, let me say that I receive a number of critiques on my posts from people that have a different view on the subject matter, and this is not just fine. it is accomplishing the goal of my posts, to generate discussion, make different points of view emerge and create value.
    This particular comment, however, shows that this post can generate an impression on my readers that I am comparing a value of environmental benefit to value of lives.
    This was, and it is not, my intention.
    Possibly, this impression is given by one sentence I have in the post:
    “This has resulted in a decrease of CO2 emission by 25%, a good thing, probably, for the planet,…”
    What I am reporting are facts. I am no expert in ethical issues and for sure, at a personal level, I will not advocate a measure in favour of the planet that would involve the suffering or, worse, killing of people.
    For this reason I prefer to clarify my point of view with this comment, apologising to those that might have felt offended by my writing, rather than removing the post.
    As a side line, but just to highlight how complex is the overall picture, whatever humanity is doing has an impact and this impact is more and more global and it is affecting and creating feedback on a wider scale, both geographically and in terms of segments. Decreasing the planet pollution, preserving non renewable energy sources seem a no brainer. Yet, what would be our feeling once we start to consider that by decreasing them we can experience famine in certain areas, decrease education and well being, … Very poor areas of the world have improved their life expectancy, but have decreased their environmental “sanity”. Sure, we have to put our knowledge and technology to use in limiting downsides, political choices have to be made in the finding an acceptable trade-off between use of resources and exploitation of the planet, in the sharing of benefit and of “downsides” (whereas, as an example, today we see wealthy countries producing ewaste that is discarded in poorer countries). On the specific matter of CO2 and pollution we know the cost in terms of human lives so again, the decrease in pollution experienced in China as result of COVID-19 containment measures may have also result in decreasing mortality. (for more info see https://respiratory-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12931-019-1117-8)
    I am pointing out all this just to underline how complex the landscape is.