Unexpectedly Intriguing!
14 June 2022

The rate at which carbon dioxide emitted by human activities accumulates in the Earth's atmosphere can tell us a lot about how the global economy is doing. Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold after December 2019, it has mostly had a lot to say about the relative health of China's economy. That's because China is, by a very wide margin, the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Much of that decline has to do with the country's zero-COVID policy. The Chinese government imposes strict lockdowns that shut down economic activity to try to limit COVID outbreaks. The economic effects of those lockdowns subsequently show up in measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the remote Mauna Loa Observatory in the Pacific Ocean. In March, China locked down large portions of Shanghai and surrounding regions, its largest economic center. Lauri Myllyvirta of Finland's Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air describes the impact:

“Starting from late March … the main driver [of reduced emission] has been [the government’s] harsh Covid-19 control policies,” he wrote in a blog published by UK-based website Carbon Brief, which covers climate science and energy policy. “The second quarter of 2022 appears highly likely to extend the trend of falling emissions – even as the construction sector slowdown bottoms out – due to the impact of Covid lockdowns becoming much more pronounced.”

That impact has been very visible in our chart tracking the pace of CO₂ accumulation, which has been falling since China imposed its new lockdowns. But in May 2022, we find that recent decline has halted.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - May 2022

The change suggests some of the Chinese government's newest efforts to boost the country's economy are having their desired effect. But whether that boost will continue in the near term remains to be seen. On 8 June 2022, the Chinese government imposed new lockdown measures in places where they were just lifted.

Shanghai and Beijing went back on fresh COVID-19 alert on Thursday after parts of China's largest economic hub imposed new lockdown restriction and the city announced a round of mass testing for millions of residents....

Both cities had recently eased heavy COVID curbs, but the country has stuck with a "dynamic zero-COVID" policy aimed at shutting down transmission chains as soon as possible....

While China's infection rate is low by global standards, President Xi Jinping has doubled down on a zero-COVID policy that authorities say is needed to protect the elderly and the country's medical system, even as other countries try to live with the coronavirus.

Shanghai's two-month lockdown, the shuttering of many malls and venues across Beijing and movement curbs imposed in many cities in recent months have battered the Chinese economy, disrupted supply chains and slowed international trade.

Authorities have been keen to revive business and started to relax some curbs in May which helped China's exports that month to grow at a double-digit pace, beating expectations, but residents, businesses and investors are wary.

Exit question: What does the continuation of the zero-COVID policy say about the confidence of Chinese leaders in their country's medical system's ability to handle COVID?


National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 3 June 2022. Accessed 3 June 2022.

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