State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Reopening Mostly Erases Effects of Pandemic Reductions in CO2 Emissions

The fate of our society depends heavily on how we, humans, manage to use our planet’s resources in a sustainable way. In this regard, carbon dioxide emissions act both as a barometer (which measures the pressure we exert on our planet) and as a clock (which reminds us that the time we have available to react is reducing exponentially). The discontinued activities related to the pandemic during the previous months have favored a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions, with atmospheric CO2 concentrations reaching values ​​of up to 17 percent below the values ​​of the past year during the same period.

Unfortunately, a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change has shown how the awakening of the economy and activities in many countries has led to a global increase in CO2 emissions, reaching levels that are only 5 percent below those of 2019 for the same period. “We still have the same cars, the same power plants, the same industries we had before the pandemic,” said Corinne Le Quéré, of the University of East Anglia in England and principal author of the analysis. “Without major structural changes, emissions are likely to return.”

cars in nyc street and empty bus lane
Photo: Flickr CC

Researchers estimate that global fossil fuel emissions throughout 2020 will likely be 4-7 percent lower than in 2019. Estimates are based on calculations related to electricity demand in the United States and Europe, industrial activity in China, and traffic measurements in cities around the world. The estimates are still suffering from major uncertainties, although they are aligned with a separate analysis by the International Energy Agency.

The return to the streets of cars and trucks for the transport of goods and consumer products is promoting a new increase in CO2 concentrations, as is the fact that those who can afford it continue to avoid public transport for fear of contracting the virus. The demand for electricity has also grown compared to previous months, reaching levels close to those of 2019.

Since pre-industrial times, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already grown by over 127 parts per million, increasing the average global temperature by about 1 degree centigrade. Although surface transport, air travel and industrial activity remain on the decline and the world consumes less oil, gas and coal than a year ago, the trajectory of global emissions in the coming years will be heavily influenced by stimulus measures that countries will implement as they seek to revive their economies.

The efforts of many large European cities such as London, Paris and Berlin to find green solutions to urban traffic are isolated episodes and contrast with the confused message that China launches through the construction of new coal-fired power plants, on the one hand, and the increased incentives for electric vehicles on the other. And the pandemic is far from over: cases continue to grow in much of the world and some countries may end up re-imposing more stringent blocking measures. This increases uncertainty in future estimates of CO2 emissions.

A crucial aspect to remember is that to cool our planet it is essential to develop technologies for the capture of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere as well as reducing emissions. In fact, it is true that even if we were to instantly shut down all the sources that currently emit CO2 into the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up due to the amount of CO2 present that has been emitted in past decades. It’s a bit like turning off the oven and leaving the dish inside while the oven cools down. The Earth will continue to cook and, with it, our society.

Edited and adapted from a story that was originally published in La Repubblica.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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