The coronavirus pandemic has forced countries around the world to implement strict closings, seal borders, and reduce economic activity. An analysis published Tuesday revealed that these measures contributed to an estimated 17 percent decline in daily global carbon dioxide emissions compared to the daily global averages of 2019.
It is a global decline that scientists say is the largest in recorded could be history.
At the peak of coronavirus confinement in early April, daily carbon dioxide emissions around the world decreased by approximately 18.7 million tons compared to average daily emissions last year, to levels last observed in 2006, according to the new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Drastic changes in transportation, industrial activities, and air travel in countries with lockdowns could also lead to a drop in annual CO2 emissions this year of up to 7 percent, the study found. While significant, scientists say these drops are unlikely to have long-term consequences once countries return to normal unless governments prioritize investment and infrastructure to reduce harmful emissions.
“We have never seen such a big drop worldwide, and at an annual level you would have to go back to World War II to see such a big drop in emissions,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and the lead author of the study. “But this is not the way to tackle climate change – it will not be done by forcing people to change behavior. We need to address this by helping people transition to a more sustainable way of life.
“Thestudy showed that the highest reduction in CO2 emissions – 43 percent of the total decline – came less movement of cars, buses and trucks. Emissions from industrial activities, which have fallen significantly in the worst affected countries, decreased by 19 percent.
Air travel emissions, which saw a stunning 75 percent drop in daily activities in early April, fell by 60 percent. However, that decline was a much smaller part of the overall decline, as air travel typically accounts for only 2.8 percent of annual global carbon emissions.
“Air traffic has fallen by two-thirds, but surface transportation – cars and trucks – is nearly 10 times greater in terms of emissions,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth systems science at Stanford University and co-author of the study.
The pandemic is also likely to cause this year’s annual CO2 emissions to fall by 4 to 7 percent, depending on how long strict social distance measures are in place and how quickly the economies are recovering.
In early April, the largest drops in daily global carbon emissions – a 17 percent drop compared to last year’s daily averages – lasted about two weeks, according to Jackson. Individual countries saw an average emission reduction of 26 percent at the peak of their closings, which previously happened for several countries in Asia, where the corona virus emerged in late December, and more recently for parts of Europe and North America.
The study did not take into account how global emissions could be affected by new outbreaks and the subsequent wave of infections, but it is likely that such events could lead to a stronger emission reduction this year and possibly until 2021.
In the new analysis, the researchers examined lockdown measures in 69 countries responsible for 97 percent of global CO2 emissions. Since there is no way to measure carbon dioxide emissions in real time, the scientists used data on the impact of six major economic sectors, including industrial activities, land transport and air travel, in each country from January to April. They then calculated how emissions in these sectors and their contribution to annual emissions changed based on the severity of each country’s social distance-distorting restrictions.
The scientists do estimate a 2.8 percent increase in residential building emissions during this period, likely from people who work from home and consume more electricity in households, Le Quéré said. It is possible, she added, that this bump could increase if the pandemic hangs through the summer and homes in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere ramp up air conditioning usage.
Although falling emissions against the background of the pandemic provide unexpectedly good news, these reductions entail high social costs. It is also unlikely that the changes will continue once the restrictions on people’s movements and everyday life are lifted. And while these declines are largely unparalleled in modern history, they also demonstrate how difficult it is to cause significant dents in global emissions.
Before the pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions had risen by about 1 percent annually in the past decade. A drop in emissions in one year is something, but slowing the accelerated pace of climate change is not enough.
“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a very long time, so climate change is caused more by the total amount we’ve ever emitted than any amount we’ve emitted in a single year,” Hausfather said. “From a climate point of view, it is really important that long-term systemic changes occur that can cause emissions reductions in recent decades.”
The reductions from 4 percent to 7 percent roughly correspond to global emissions that would fall annually to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees Celsius, as outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
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