Despite Cuts In Emissions, Covid-19 Lockdown Won't Save The Planet From Climate Crisis

New York City, USA - 3/29/2020: A used glove on an Empty 5th Avenue of New York City during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

While the Covid-19 lockdown did give Earth a much-needed vacation from greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, this brief spell will have little or no impact on the wider climate crisis facing the planet, according to a new study.  

That said, the post-lockdown economic recovery plans could provide a rare opportunity to rejig the global economy towards a more environmentally friendly future that could meet some of the optimistic targets set by the Paris Agreement. 

The Earth is generally regarded as having warmed about 1.1°C since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with a further 0.2°C to 0.9°C forecasted to occur by 2050. The big challenge is to cap further warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2050 or, if that’s not achieved, limit it to 2˚C at an absolute maximum. 

Despite significant but short-lived drops in emissions, the new study found that ongoing lockdown measures will only reduce global warming by 0.01°C to 0.005 °C lower than previously expected by 2030. In other words, the long-term effect of the lockdown on climate change is disappointingly negligible.  

However, the study also argues that if the global economy transitions out of lockdown with a green economic recovery plan, then it’s possible to keep the world from exceeding 1.5˚C of warming by the middle of this century.

“The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3˚C of additional warming by mid-century, halving the expected warming under current policies. This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change,” Piers Forster, study author and a professor of Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds, said in a statement

Reported in the journal Nature Climate Change this week, scientists in the UK calculated how 10 different greenhouse gases and air pollutants changed between February and June 2020 in 123 countries by looking at NASA simulations combined with data on peoples’ movements gathered by Apple and Google. They found that mobility declined by over 10 percent during April 2020 in all but one of the 125 nations tracked, while mobility declined by 80 percent in five or more nations.

This roughly translated to 10 to 30 percent global decline of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and other emissions in April 2020. However, the overall effect on the Earth’s climate will be negligible because many emissions, notably CO2, can persist in the atmosphere for a long time. Furthermore, pollution levels are already returning to near-normal in many parts of the world. 

Now comes for the future. With much of the world putting together their post-lockdown economic recovery plan, the study argues we could grasp the opportunity to reshape the economy by fostering renewables and energy efficiency, rather than bailing out the fossil fuel industry. In doing so, it would be possible for the planet to meet some desirable climate targets and avoid some of the harshest climate change scenarios.

Whether that will happen, however, remains to be seen.

“Where this study should really focus minds is on what we want to happen next,” commented Professor Dave Reay, chair in Carbon Management and executive director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study. 

“Choose a powerful green recovery of renewables and energy efficiency, and there’s an even chance of meeting the Paris Climate Goals and avoid devastating climate change impacts for millions,” he added. “Choose a climate-blind recovery of fossil fuels and high carbon bailouts, and we put ourselves on course for global heating of well over 2 degrees C and imperil generations to come.”

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