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Effect of Covid Lockdown on Carbon Emissions

Devon’s carbon emissions have reduced by almost a quarter (23%) during the lockdown new data suggests. The data has been collected on behalf of the Devon Climate Emergency Response Group (DCERG). Download a PDF of the paper here.

1. Background

In the most tragic of circumstances, the lockdown has given a glimpse of how a more sustainable Devon might look, feel and sound. Anecdotally people have experienced quieter streets for walking and cycling, heard more bird song, seen wildlife where they wouldn’t have normally encountered it and felt a greater connection and appreciation for green spaces around them. What has the effect been on carbon emissions and how can we work together to contribute to an economic reset that encourages decarbonisation and ecological restoration?

The purpose of this paper is to facilitate conversation and debate amongst the Devon Climate Emergency partners.

2.Effect on Devon’s Carbon Emissions

Road Transport Fuel

Traffic flows on average in Devon have been about 60% below expected levels[1]. Road transport emissions represent 28% of Devon’s total emissions. It can therefore be assumed that the effect of the reduced traffic flows on Devon’s total emissions was a reduction of: 28% x 60% = 17%.

Gas and Other Fuel Consumption

Once weather corrected, the gas consumption in the South West network area was 10% lower in April 2020 than it was in April 2019[2]. It would be reasonable to assume this would be the same for other heating and process fuels.

In Devon, gas and other fuel consumption contributes 66% of the emissions from buildings and facilities, which themselves represent 42% of Devon’s emissions. Therefore, the reduced fuel consumption has reduced Devon’s emissions by: 42% x 66% x 10% = 3%.

Electricity Consumption

Regional data has not been made available for this paper. UK electricity demand during April 2020 was 18% below April 2019 levels[3].

In Devon, electricity consumption contributes 34% of the emissions from buildings and facilities, which themselves represent 42% of Devon’s emissions. Therefore, the reduced electricity consumption has reduced Devon’s emissions by: 42% x 34% x 18% = 3%.

Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use

The remaining significant contributor to Devon’s emissions is the agriculture, forestry and land use sector. These emissions are likely to have been unchanged during the lockdown as these emissions principally arise as methane from livestock rearing.

Total Effect

The total effect on Devon’s emissions during the lockdown period is about 23% (17% + 3% + 3%).

3. A Note on Air Quality

Whilst not the focus of this paper, this section provides a commentary on the effects of the lock down on local air quality.

Concentrations of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide vary annually as a result of multiple factors, especially weather conditions. This makes an analysis of the impact of lockdown restrictions more complicated than simply comparing this year to last year.

With this caveat in mind, provisional data for April 2020 shows that the average nitrogen dioxide concentration at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum was 16 µg/m3 compared to 32 in 2019. Furthermore, the maximum hourly concentration measured during the same period is 51 µg/m3, compared to 95 respectively. An unratified estimate at this stage is therefore about a 50% reduction[4].

This is an improvement that is well worth maintaining but there is also no way of knowing what the impact of this improvement on health might be, because there is no clear agreement on what the exact relationship between nitrogen dioxide and health impacts are.

Particulate matter is much less affected by local sources than nitrogen dioxide concentrations are. Since the lockdown began, there have been a couple of episodes of moderate or high concentrations due to pollution brought here by weather from elsewhere. Average measured levels of particulate matter across the country are probably slightly down on last year, but by less than nitrogen dioxide.

Any improvement that we can make to particulate concentrations will almost certainly benefit health, with particular links to lung health when considered over the longer time scale.

4. Carbon Emissions Projection for 2020

The International Energy Agency[5] has modelled the continued effects of a global recession caused by months-long restrictions on mobility and social and economic activity.

It is expected that global CO2 emissions will decline by 8% to 2010 levels. Whilst this size of reduction will be the largest on record, six times larger than the reduction caused by the 2009 global financial crisis, the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline, which is what has occurred after every dip during the twentieth century.

5. Beyond 2020

If the carbon reductions required to achieve net-zero by 2050 were to be implemented on a linear trajectory over the next 30 years, the world would need to see annual reductions representing about half of the projected annual reduction in 2020 for the foreseeable future. This demonstrates the scale and ambition of a net-zero 2050 target.  

Ultimately, despite the radical changes in behaviour that have been required during the lockdown, the impact on mitigating global warming will be negligible if economic stimulus packages are not focussed towards carbon-reducing initiatives.

6.Lockdown Lifestyle-Changes[6]

The lockdown has imposed behaviour changes on society that have caused the greenhouse gas emissions reductions discussed at Section 2. But which of those could partly remain long-term after restrictions are lifted?


Use of video conferencing has enabled effective remote meetings that avoided the need to travel.


Home working reduces the need to commute but it also reduces the demand for public transport which could be a negative effect in terms of needing a minimum number of passengers to a make a service commercially viable.

The reduced capacity of public transport during the remainder of 2020 to enable social distancing, and public nervousness of using such services is likely to increase private car travel for those that can’t work from home. Post-covid projections suggest that public transport usage may fall by 20% in Britain’s cities[7].


How many outlets will reopen if our shopping habits move online or indeed our habit for buying new things falls? What will be the role of high streets?

Air Travel

Less business travel is likely to occur due to the proven video conferencing technology. There may also be nervousness about flying after the pandemic, or a perceived fuss of the social distancing measures that will need to be in place. If the industry becomes smaller, ticket prices are likely to rise which could further reduce demand. Desire to travel for tourism will probably remain.


To what extent will digital classes play a role post-covid? Will children be expected to travel to school every day, or at the same time of day? The pre-Covid schooling model provided childcare so that parents can work during the day, whereas digital classes at home require supervision. Furthermore, physical schooling provides an important opportunity for children to socialise with their peers. Therefore, the schooling model is probably unlikely to change substantially.  


A greater sense of community and realising what is really important for our wellbeing may focus attention on local, community enterprises and volunteering.

7. Economic Stimulus Opportunities

There are clear economic, social, and environmental benefits from immediate expansion of the following carbon-reducing measures, many of which could be influenced by Devon Climate Emergency partners – these are taken from recommendations to Government by the UK Committee on Climate Change[8]. Those in black italic type could be mobilised quickly and align well with the actions emerging from the work on the Devon Carbon Plan and the Adaptation Plan.  

  • Investments in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure.
    • Significantly strengthen electricity networks
    • Carbon capture and storage
    • Flood and coastal risk management
    • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure
    • Renewable energy deployment
    • Support for carbon-intensive sectors should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change.
  • Supporting reskilling, retraining and research for a net-zero, well-adapted economy, particularly:
    • Designers, builders and installers of low-carbon heating, energy and water efficiency tech, ventilation and thermal comfort and property-level flood resilience.
    • Engineering, procurement and construction management services.
    • Carbon capture and storage technology.
  • Upgrades to our homes ensuring they are fit for the future. Supporting the reskilling agenda, we should:
    • Rapidly increase the rate of retrofitting homes
    • Develop supply chains for whole house retrofits
    • Ensure new homes are low carbon
  • Making it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely.
    • More safe spaces for walking and cycling
    • More bike parking
    • More shared bike schemes
    • Investment in digital infrastructure should be prioritised over strengthening the roads network
  • Tree planting, peatland restoration, green spaces and other green infrastructure.
    • Restoring parks and planting urban trees
    • Landscape-scale nature improvement (marine and land)

All of these initiatives create economic activity and bring benefits for biodiversity, air quality, flood prevention and health and wellbeing.

8. Conclusion

The extent of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions likely to be experienced globally in 2020 is not considerably more than will be required every year to meet net-zero targets by 2050.

Amongst the sadness of the Covid-19 pandemic there is a huge opportunity to use the economic stimulus measures that are necessary to enable communities to recover, to improve public health, our resilience and our wellbeing as well as address the climate and ecological emergencies.   

There are projects in Devon that could respond quickly to cash injection to develop supply chains and skills for a low carbon future.  


[1] Data from the Devon County Council Planning, Transportation and Environment service

[2] Data from and analysed by the Devon County Council Environment Group

[3] Data from and analysed by the Devon County Council Environment Group

[4] UK Air Quality Data Inventory [online]

[5] International Energy Agency (2020) Global Energy Review 2020, International Energy Agency, Available at

[6] Kleinman, Z. Et al. (2020) ‘How will coronavirus change the way we live?’, BBC News, 30th April [online], Available at [Accessed 12th May 2020]

[7] Harrabin, R. (2020) ‘Coronavirus: Transport Usage Will Change After Lockdown’, BBC News, 25th April [online], Available at [Accessed 13th May 2020]

[8] Committee on Climate Change (2020) Building a Resilient Recovery from the Covid-19 Crisis, Committee on Climate Change. Available at

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