Climate Change

COVID-19 cut carbon emissions but not enough to dent global warming

The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve - WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 23 November 2020

Many eagerly awaited to know the impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on the climate. Did the widespread shutdowns and drastic reduction in industrial activities lead reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emission?

According to preliminary estimates by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the annual global carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reduced 4.2-7.5 per cent in 2020.

WMO’s Global Carbon Project has estimated that “during the most intense period of the shutdown, daily CO2 emissions may have been reduced by up to 17 per cent globally due to the confinement of the population”.

But there is not much to cheer about: WMO calls it a blip on the planet’s uncontrolled emission scenario.

According to the estimate report:

At the global scale, an emissions reduction at this scale will not cause atmospheric CO2 to go down. CO2 will continue to go up, though at a slightly reduced pace (0.08-0.23 ppm per year lower).

The natural inter-annual variability in CO2 emission is 1 part per million (ppm). It means the impact of the pandemic on CO2 reduction is not significant and not even higher than the natural variability figure.

“This means that on the short-term the impact of the COVID-19 confinements cannot be distinguished from natural variability,” according to WMO.

The Earth’s atmosphere has a heavy concentration of GHGs including CO2. The temporary reduction in emission due to the pandemic would not curb global warming and resultant climate change.

Rather, the GHG emission would continue to rise in 2020 as well. Last year the global average of CO2 crossed the threshold of 410 ppm.

Taalas said:

Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer. The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now. But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants. 

More to it, it took just four years for the level to cross this threshold from 400 ppm in 2015. “Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records. The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve,” the WMO secretary-general added.

“The annual globally averaged level of carbon dioxide was about 410.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2019, up from 407.9 parts ppm in 2018, having crossed the 400 parts per million benchmark in 2015. The increase in CO2 from 2018 to 2019 was larger than that observed from 2017 to 2018 and also larger than the average over the last decade,” according to the WMO bulletin.

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