Covid-19 lockdown will have ‘negligible’ impact on climate crisis – study
The draconian coronavirus lockdowns across the world have led to sharp drops in carbon emissions, but this will have “negligible” impact on the climate crisis, with global heating cut by just 0.01C by 2030, a study has found.
But the analysis also shows that putting the huge sums of post-Covid-19 government funding into a green recovery and shunning fossil fuels will give the world a good chance of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C. The scientists said we are now at a “make or break” moment in keeping under the limit – as compared with pre-industrial levels – agreed by the world’s governments to avoid the worst effects of global heating.
The research is primarily based on newly available Google and Apple mobility data. This gives near-real-time information on travel and work patterns and therefore gives an idea of the level of emissions. The data covered 123 countries that together are responsible for 99% of fossil fuel emissions. The researchers found that global CO2 emissions dropped by more than 25% in April 2020, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 30%.
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China produces the most heat-trapping pollution, followed by the US. But historically, the US has contributed more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than any other nation. The US also has high emissions per capita, compared to other developed countries. And Americans buy products made in China, therefore supporting China’s carbon footprint.
These falls show that rapid changes in people’s behaviour can make big differences to emissions in the short term, but the scientists said such lockdowns are impossible to maintain. Therefore, economy-wide changes are needed for a transformation to a zero-emissions economy, such as greening transport, buildings and industry with renewable energy, hydrogen or by capturing and burying CO2.
“The direct effect of the pandemic-driven [lockdown] will be negligible,” said the researchers, whose analysis was led by Prof Piers Forster at the University of Leeds. “In contrast, with an economic recovery tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments, it is possible to avoid future warming of 0.3C by 2050.”
The global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1C above the long-term average and even with current emissions-cutting pledges a further rise of 0.6C is expected by 2050. “It is now make or break for the 1.5C target,” said Forster. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really change the direction of society. We do not have to go back to where we were, because times of crisis are also the time to change.”
Prof Keith Shine, at the University of Reading and not part of the study team, said: “It is deeply impressive to get such a near-real-time analysis of the climate impact [of the lockdowns].”
Shine said a green recovery from the pandemic is essential to meet the Paris climate agreement target: “The study shows that, because CO2 is so persistent in the atmosphere, short-term emission reductions resulting directly from the pandemic lockdowns lead to undetectable reductions in warming. It is only via sustained and radical changes in the way we use fossil fuels that we can hope to meet the Paris [climate agreement] target.”
The analysis, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, used mobility data from Google and Apple that tracks the location of individuals. This was used to assess changes in levels of transport and office and factory working, and then the emissions of 10 different greenhouse gases and air pollutants.