Carbon dioxide emissions fall – but by accident

The good news is that carbon dioxide emissions have fallen in line with global agreement. But we have chance to thank for that.

Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China
No passengers waiting at the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China. Empty airports are helping to force down carbon dioxide emissions. Image: ToGa Wanderings, CC BY-SA 2.0

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 will not reach record levels. The main greenhouse gas was released into the atmosphere to fuel global warming during April at a rate 17 per cent lower than during the same month in 2019. That means a drop of 17 million tonnes of the gas every day.

The news is unlikely to be welcomed by climate scientists, environmental campaigners and governments interested in reducing the hazard of climate catastrophe. None of the fall in emissions was because of determined policies to reduce the rate of emissions and therefore the speed of climate change.

Emission levels have fallen to a level last observed in 2006. This is explained entirely by a series of simultaneous multinational lockdowns and economic slowdown as a consequence of an unexpected, and unprecedented, pandemic of a novel coronavirus that at the time of writing had worldwide claimed more than 330,000 lives.

The sudden slowdown in car journeys as businesses closed, workers were laid off and schoolchildren stayed at home accounted for almost half the decrease, according to a team of international scientists reporting in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post-Covid-19 will influence global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,

Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science and policy, University of East Anglia

Foreign travel fell, airports stayed silent, to account for a 10 per cent fall. For the extent of a northern hemisphere spring, people had a chance to experience a world in which atmospheric pollution of every kind was reduced, fossil fuel consumption dropped, and people walked or cycled or simply stayed at home.

It is, however, unlikely to be a rehearsal for the sustained social and economic change required to contain climate change: the slowdown is almost certainly temporary. But it does provide breathing space and an opportunity to change direction.

“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post-Covid-19 will influence global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,” said Corinne le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia, UK, who led the study.

“Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and to be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement.”

The year began with high confidence that the world’s nations – almost all of which had in Paris in 2015 vowed to contain global warming to well below 2°C by 2100 – would go on burning ever more fossil fuel and clearing ever more forest, to take greenhouse gas emissions to ever higher levels.

The researchers analysed government policies for the 69 countries that account for 97 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. At the height of confinement, territories responsible for 89 per cent of global emissions experienced some level of restriction.

Meagre drop

Armed with economic data that measured the slowdown, the researchers were able to make estimates of the CO2 emissions that never happened: by the end of April, these amounted to 1,048 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas, with the largest drops being in China, the US and Europe.

On present form, however, the annual total is likely to be down by only between 4 per cent and 7 per cent compared with 2019. The larger figure is roughly the annual drop required year on year to keep the promises made in Paris.

“The drop in emissions is substantial, but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments,” said Rob Jackson, of Stanford University in California, another of the authors.

“We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behaviour.” 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.


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