Global Carbon Emissions Fell By 7 Percent Thanks To COVID Restrictions. We Can Learn From This

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 were 7 percent lower than in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Image Credit: tonkid/Shutterstock.com

Global carbon dioxide emissions dropped 7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its necessary lockdown and restrictions, a new study has found. 

The study comes five years after the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement and provides important insights into the global effort needed to reduce emissions and to sustain this reduction.

High-income countries, which are responsible for the majority of emissions, slowed their CO2 growth emissions to 0.8 percent on average per year since 2015 when the Paris agreement was signed but declined by 9 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, the study shows.

Upper-middle-income and lower-income countries' emissions on average had continued to grow between 2016 and 2019, respectively of 0.8 and 4.5 percent. However, in 2020 that growth turned into a drop of 5 percent for upper-middle-countries and 9 percent for lower-income countries.

2020 saw 2.6 fewer gigatons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, which gives us an idea of the scale that governments need to commit to in order to avoid global catastrophe and keep global temperature increases below 2°C (3.6°F). Each year in the 2020s, we should reduce emissions by 1 to 2 gigatons, the researchers said.

“The drop in CO2 emissions from responses to COVID-19 highlights the scale of actions and international adherence needed to tackle climate change,” the authors wrote in Nature Climate Change. “Experience from several previous crises show that the underlying drivers of emissions reappear, if not immediately, then within a few years. Therefore to change the trajectory in global CO2 emissions in the long term, the underlying drivers also need to change.”

Ambitious goals for tackling the climate emergency have to be followed by actions, but a recent interim report from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change shows that we are nowhere close to reaching the goals set out by the Paris Climate Agreement. Reaching “net zero” has been agreed by China for 2060, and the US by 2050. The European Union has also committed to net zero by 2050 and a reduction of at least 55 percent by 2030.

While these actions are welcome, the researchers report that current COVID-19 recovery plans are in direct contradiction to these objectives, and this could turn out to be a wasted opportunity to learn from change economies and societies for the better.

“Covid did not shut down our global economy but its impact was undeniably huge: we flew less and travelled less; we ate out less often, worked from home, socialised less; manufacturing continued, and labs remained open but only after shutdowns and disruption. And still, the decrease in CO2 emissions was less than 10%, a strikingly small shift given the disruption to society…and when compared to the need to eventually achieve a near 100% reduction in CO2 emissions,” Professor Richard Pancost, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, UK, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement

“This should not surprise us; for over a century, we embedded fossil fuel emissions into every aspect of our society.  We burn fossil fuels to fly or drive but also to manufacture bicycles or deliver the food that fuels us when we walk. This should not cause us to despair, because if we have been able to build a fossil-fuel-based society over a century, it is not too much of a challenge to replace it in a few decades. Crucially, however, it will involve more than just changes to our behaviour, although those are important. We will have to invest in infrastructure and transform our economy and support the many who will be impacted by those changes.”

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