The Mass Migration During Chinese Lunar New Year

Jennifer Leakos
Busy airport scene
Courtesy of CNN

Imagine Christmas at Aunt Sue’s house but instead of spending the weekend, it’s 15 days long and you live in one of the most densely populated countries on Earth – that’s roughly the Lunar New Year celebrations in Asia. 

This is the first year many are going back to their homes to celebrate a typical Lunar New Year since Covid-19, and travel is at a massive scale. 

Background: Lunar New Year is celebrated by a number of Asian countries, notably China, South Korea, and Vietnam. There is significant emphasis on spending time with family (the joyous/painful equivalent to the Western holiday season).

The mass migration: The traveling season starts January 7 and ends February 20, with the largest movement seen in China where millions leave the major cities to go back to their hometowns.

  • This year, the Transport Ministry of China estimates there will be 2.1 billion trips (not a typo, yes that is billions) made during the 40-day holiday season. 

Traveling in China during the Lunar New Year

Traveling in China during the Lunar New Year chart
Courtesy of Bloomberg

Each day in 2023 had seen ~40 percent more trips than in 2022, when quarantining was still required.

  • Traveling still hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels: the number of trips leading up to January 19 is still ~45 percent lower than in 2019.

Trains used to be the main mode of transportation, but since the pandemic, more are opting to carpool. Compared to 2019, there was an increase of cars on the highway by about 15 percent.

The GHG impact: Though transport emissions increase during this season, they’re generally offset by the reduced activity levels in the power and industrial sectors due to people leaving the major cities. Factories are closed for approximately two weeks, resulting in a significant drop in energy demand across the country.

Due to the lower demand, Shandong province, China’s largest solar power region, asked households to turn off their rooftop solar panels from January 19 to 28.

Daily coal consumption at six major power firms in China during Chinese New Year (2014-2020)

Daily coal consumption at six major power firms in China during Chinese New Year (2014-2020)
Courtesy of Carbon Brief 

Coal consumption also decreases and doesn’t typically rebound to normal demand until 20 days after the holiday. This has a material impact on emissions in China, particularly in carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxides (NOx). 

NOx and CO2 emissions in China (2019 and 2020)

Courtesy of Science

The chart above shows both the drop in emissions between 2020 and 2019 as a result of lockdowns and illustrates the decrease in emissions during the Lunar New Year season. 

So what happens when 1/6 of the world’s population goes on vacation?

Surprisingly, the Lunar New Year has a positive impact on emissions, even with the huge volumes of domestic travel. During these periods, China sees a ~25 percent drop in its emissions which results in a 5 percent drop in global emissions.

While we can’t expect any countries to close their manufacturing sectors for 2-week periods every year, it does give us better leverage for our next negotiation about vacation days. It’s for the environment.