Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Coronavirus and our climate

Carbon dioxide emissions had fallen by 17% on average by early April, according to a definitive study published in Nature Climate Change on Tuesday, as a result of the lockdown measures put in place around the world to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

This may seem like an environmental blessing, a breathing space as the world fights climate breakdown with skies clear of aeroplanes and streets free of cars have encouraged the return of nature and brought visions of a cleaner world but the unprecedented decline is “nothing to celebrate”, according to leading experts.

It will be temporary and will make little difference to the world’s ability to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and stave off catastrophic levels of global heating. 

“This decline in emissions, the biggest in history, is the result of economic trauma,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, whose own analysis backs up the Nature paper in showing this is the biggest drop in carbon in history. “It is nothing to celebrate. It is not the result of policy. This decline will be easily erased if the right policy measures are not put in place.”

“None of this is good news for anyone,” added Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “It is the symptom of a massive economic disruption caused by the pandemic and the measures to contain it. For the climate, this month-long wake in otherwise record-high emissions is entirely insignificant...Massive economic stimulus measures are now being announced and there is a high risk that short-sightedness will lead governments to lose track of the bigger picture by putting their money towards highly polluting sectors that have no place in a zero-pollution and zero-carbon society,” said Rogelj.

Dave Reay, a professor of carbon management at Edinburgh University, called the paper “sobering stuff” as it revealed the massive changes made to cope with the pandemic would have only a minor effect on emissions, and the climate. “All those billions of lockdown sacrifices and privations have made just a small and likely transient dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. Covid-19 is no help on climate change – it is a devastating scourge.”

What is to come might be worse still, he warned, if governments around the world seek to kickstart the global economy out of its pandemic recession by pouring public money into projects that prop up existing industries and increase our dependence on fossil fuels. For instance, sectors including aviation, car manufacturing and fossil fuel production have been hard hit by the lockdowns, and many companies are hoping for bailouts using public money.

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