Study shows drop in carbon dioxide emissions due to shelter-in-place orders

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According to a UC Berkeley study, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a notable drop in Bay Area carbon dioxide emissions due to the shelter-in-place orders. According to Ronald Cohen, study co-author, the study’s findings hold implications for the future of transportion, in which all vehicles are potentially electric. (Photo by B137 under CC BY CC0 1.0.)

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A UC Berkeley study showed a significant drop in carbon dioxide emissions in the Bay Area due to shelter-in-place orders brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study compared a six-week period before the shelter-in-place orders, from Feb. 2 through Mar. 15, to a six-week period after, from Mar. 22 through May 2, according to a Berkeley News press release. Ultimately, the study showed that there was an approximately 48% decrease in carbon dioxide emitted from traffic and an overall 30% decrease in urban emissions of carbon dioxide throughout the Bay Area.

“We saw really no change to the industry but a big change to traffic,” said Alex Turner, study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Washington. “In some ways, that highlights forces that are elastic, or can be quickly changed in response to some policy.”

Prior to the pandemic, average changes in carbon dioxide emissions were relatively constant each week, according to Ronald Cohen, study co-author and UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and of earth and planetary sciences. However, once nearly half of all cars in the Bay Area were off the road as a result of the pandemic, Cohen said he saw “enormous changes” in carbon dioxide emissions.

The study used 35 sites from Berkeley Environmental Air-quality and CO2 Network, or BEACO2N, which measures pollutant concentrations in urban areas, according to the BEACO2N website. Along with an atmospheric transport model, the researchers were able to quantitatively observe changes in emissions during the pandemic.

Many of the BEACO2N sensors are on top of K-12 schools in the Bay Area, according to Cohen, who is also part of the BEACO2N team. One goal of the project is to build a curriculum on air pollution and climate for students in these schools.

According to Cohen, the results of the study offer a glimpse into a future in which all vehicles on the road may potentially be electric.

“One policy I would like to see is the shift to electric vehicles. The electrification of personal vehicles and of the trucking industry would be very useful,” Turner said. “More focused, regulatory policies to reduce the industrial emissions of CO2 is really needed in both the U.S. and internationally, especially if we’re going to try and actually curb climate change. We need to act now.”

According to Cohen, the Bay Area’s goal, and California more broadly, is to reduce emissions by about 5% per year until zero emissions is reached. He added that a significant fraction of this reduction would occur as a result of a switch to electric vehicles.

Cohen also hopes to expand the BEACO2N network across the world, having recently shipped equipment to Glasgow, Scotland, where the next U.N. Climate Change Conference will be held.

“We are hoping to have a report on CO2 emissions from (Glasgow) in time for the meeting of the parties, to use that then as a launching point to try and encourage every other city in the world to adopt an observing strategy to go with their CO2 reduction strategy,” Cohen said.

Contact Lauren Good at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @lgooddailycal.