The Federal year-end data series

(The Federal’s insightful data series on key areas like economy, climate, and agriculture)

At the end of ‘COVID year’, has nature really healed?

Akash Chandrashekhar Gulankar

Uploaded 26 December, 2020

Following lockdown, we saw a sudden drop in pollution levels across the globe. But soon, the hope vanished as the world tried to regain its pace.



Despite a decline in pollution levels across the world due to COVID, the year 2020 might still be the warmest on earth on record, data suggests. The decline in the mobility of people around the globe and drop in pollution levels haven’t really helped mitigate the climate crisis in the world.

The year 2020 threw a surprise on every aspect of our lives. Climate was no exception.

When the whole world gradually entered a lockdown following the spread of the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of the year, there was a sudden drop in pollution level across the globe. A sudden curb on the movement of people had reduced pollution levels to unprecedented levels, and it seemed nature was healing, giving rise to hope in the fight against climate change.

But, soon, it was gone, as the world regained its pace. The pollution levels returned to the pre-COVID levels. The global surface temperature that clearly indicates changes in climatic conditions shows that 2020 might be the warmest year on earth since 1978, revealed a data analysis by Carbonbrief.

1. Could 2020 be the warmest year?

Despite a drop in pollution levels, this year might not see any major development on the global warming front, one of the major indicators of climate change. Data analysis of the temperatures recorded by six different groups across the globe suggests that 2020 might be the warmest year on the earth, if not the second warmest.

The research groups were — NASA, Berkeley Earth, Copernicus, Cowtan & Way, Met Hadley Centre and NOAA. These datasets have surface temperature data till the month of September, while figures for October to December will be added in the next two months.

According to NASA, the year 2016 holds the record of being the warmest year. It had reported an increase in annual warming by about 0.59 degree Celsius; the second-warmest was 2019, with an increase in warming of about 0.56 degree Celsius. The surface temperature levels until September in 2020 suggest that the warming level of 2016 would be crossed by the end of 2020.

2. Change in mobility

Google started publishing a community mobility report in 2020 to indicate changes in the movement of people to places such as retail shops, parks, public transport, workplaces, homes, etc. The report considers pre-COVID mobility as the baseline and calculates further increase or decrease in mobility in a specific location.

India, which had the most stringent COVID lockdown in the world, is still struggling to restart all the businesses, and the mobility hasn't been restored to the pre-COVID levels, according to the data. The report said the mobility in residential areas is declining. It has been increasing in the outdoors towards the end of the year.

The movement in residential areas was 30 per cent higher than normal levels in March. On the other hand, the movement in retail & recreational activities tanked to 87 per cent below the normal level. The mobility in pharmacy & grocery stores remained a little below normal all through the year. The mobility in workplaces and transit stations (public transport) started recovering from June but is still below the normal levels. The number of visits to parks and recreational activities, too, recovered from October but again showed a declining trend in the month of November. The overall mobility is still on its way to recovery after almost six months of ‘Unlock’, the data shows.

Maharashtra, the state that was the worst affected in India due to coronavirus, reported a trend similar to the rest of India in mobility. Residential mobility had reached almost 40 per cent above normal and it remained at that level as of December 20. Workplace movement, too, gained a little momentum after mid-October. Retail and recreational activities are yet to recover fully in Maharashtra.

Delhi, one of the worst-affected cities in the country, is also yet to fully recover on many mobility indicators. Only residential movement has returned to the normal levels till December, while pharmacy, workplace mobility is yet to recover. Recreational activities, too, have a long way to recovery, shows the data.

3. Drop in pollution

As a result of the decline in mobility, pollution levels, too, saw an unprecedented fall in 2020. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the average PM 2.5 levels of the four metro cities – Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore – dropped substantially. These cities showed PM 2.5 levels of 20, 22, 49 and 23, respectively during the lockdown period.

A comparison of data with the average levels of the three previous years shows Kolkata had the highest drop in percentage terms, while Delhi reported the highest drop in absolute terms. During the lockdown, all these cities reported half the PM levels compared with the average of the last three years.

A comparison of the annual data of PM levels of the metros shows that pollutants in Delhi and Bengaluru in 2020 reduced by half of the figure in 2019. Similarly, Mumbai and Kolkata saw a drop of 27 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively, compared to the previous year.

Despite the ban on crackers imposed by many states, most major cities observed PM levels peaking during Diwali. There was a sudden surge in PM levels from the lows witnessed during the lockdown. The Delhi-NCR region (Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurugram, etc) showed a big rise in PM levels in the Diwali week. The Kejriwal government had put a blanket ban on crackers in Delhi during the festival. Similarly, Lucknow and Patna, too, saw a sudden spike in pollution levels in the period. The cracker ban or restrictions on its use didn’t help reduce pollution.

4. Rains

A good rainfall across the country was one of the positive things that India reported on the climate front in 2020. India saw above-average rainfall during monsoon this year. All the four months except July reported more than average rainfall. Even July had only a 10 per cent deficit.

The rainfall in June was 196.2 mm compared to the average of 166.9 mm; in July, it was 257.6 mm against the average of 285.4 mm. The cumulative rainfall in August and September was 76 mm more than the average.

The region-wise distribution of rain, too, remained balanced during this year. The country saw an excess of about 77 mm rainfall. All the regions — central India, south peninsula, and east & northeast India regions, except northwest India region — experienced above-average rainfall. There was a departure of about 94 mm from the average rainfall. The south peninsula had the most excess rainfall — by about 213 mm — this year.

The month-wise energy demand data shows the negative change in demand began in March which continued till August. April saw the highest departure of almost 25% (-24.97%) from the same month of the previous year. It was followed by May (-15.92%), June (-10.62%) and March (-9.82%). A positive growth in demand in October showed some signs of recovery. But that did not last long as there was negative growth in demand in November. The December data when released may give a clearer picture of the recovery trend.