Story at a glance

  • 2020 yielded a sizable drop in greenhouse gas emissions due to economic shutdowns.
  • Researchers warn that this will not be tenable without institutional change.

As a year, 2020 conjures up many negative associations. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, record-breaking natural disasters and civil unrest are just some of the events that come to mind. 

One positive outcome to emerge from 2020, however, relates to climate change and its affects on the Earth’s ecosystems.  

A preliminary report, authored by the Rhodium Group, suggests that due to the mass economic and public sector shutdowns relegating people home as officials worked to contain COVID-19 transmission, the U.S. posted a 10.3 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


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This is the single largest drop seen in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions in the post-World War II era, putting the U.S. below 1990 emissions levels after decades of increasing emissions.

Specifically, U.S. emissions declined by 21 percent below 2005 levels. 

Across industries, the transportation sector posted the most dramatic reductions in emissions throughout 2020. This is likely a direct result of the travel bans imposed by political leaders — and officials warning against travel in general — in a bid to reduce virus transmission.

Transportation, including automobiles and airplane flights, accounts for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Jet fuel demand reportedly fell by 68 percent compared to spring 2019 levels once flights were suspended or canceled due to COVID-19. Gasoline demand fell as well, by about 40 percent, and diesel demand fell by 18 percent — indicating a large drop in travel.

Jet fuel and diesel have since posted modest increases in demand, with gasoline slightly declining as of December 2020 data.

Overall, this decline amounted to a 273 million metric ton drop in U.S. emissions.

The electric power sector also posted major declines in greenhouse gas emissions, down 167 million metric tons below 2019 levels, mainly driven by a drop in coal power generation. Industrial activity also dropped by 7 percent overall, with coal mining, iron and steel, and refinery industrial activity posting some of the biggest changes. 

While this drop in hazardous emissions is certainly progress, the report authors note that the U.S. still has work to do to meet the goals of the global Paris Agreement, which aims to get U.S. emissions about 26-28 percent below 2005 levels.

If structural change, mainly shaped by sustainable legislative and policy initiatives, in how much carbon the U.S. is permitted to emit is not implemented, greenhouse gas levels are likely to rise again as the country works to emerge from the pandemic, experts say. 

“Unfortunately, 2020 tells us little about what we can expect to see in 2021 and beyond,” the report authors note. “It certainly shouldn’t be considered a down payment toward meeting the 2025 US target under the Paris Agreement of 26-28% below 2005 levels.”


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Published on Jan 13, 2021