State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Coronavirus is Not Helping to Slow Down Climate Change

empty streets in Washington DC
Washington D.C. Photo: dmbosstone/Flickr CC

One of the few positive outcomes (if we want to call them that) of the drastic measures implemented to contain the pandemic is that we may have reduced our planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. Disrupting our lives, the pandemic has transfigured our society by reducing transportation, production of goods, and a whole series of activities that heavily add CO2 into the atmosphere.

Global CO2 emissions immediately after the global lockdown last spring decreased by 17% from 2019 average levels during the same period, with the peak of the reduction reaching 26%. A new study now takes stock of the situation and predicts that, based on data in the energy, industry and mobility sectors, in 2020 global CO2 emissions will drop by up to 8%. Unfortunately, although this may seem like a victory, this value is a drop in the ocean of emissions that we humans have injected in the atmosphere. Alone, it is not enough to have a significant effect on climate change.

“To reduce the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in the long run, the restrictions imposed during the pandemic would have to be continued for decades. But even this would be far from sufficient,” says study author Ralf Sussmann of the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), cumulative reductions of this magnitude would be needed each year to achieve the Paris Agreement goals by 2030.

One of the problems in understanding the effect of the pandemic on CO2 concentrations includes natural fluctuations in how much oceans and terrestrial vegetation absorb or emit CO2. Sussman’s study overcame this challenge by using extremely precise measurements of carbon concentrations in different layers of the atmosphere above Garmisch-Partenkirchen and other locations around the world.

Sussman and his colleague also studied a long-term scenario to understand how quickly and how much emissions will have to be reduced to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The results showed how this goal can only be achieved with a significant and immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, and a further decrease to zero emissions by 2055.

“The restrictions imposed during the corona crisis, however, are far from being sufficient,” says Sussman. “They have just resulted in a one-time reduction by eight percent. To reach zero emissions in the coming decades, cumulative reductions of the same magnitude would be required every year, i.e. 16 percent in 2021, 24 percent in 2022, and so on.”

To achieve those reductions, the study authors point out, “political measures have to be taken to directly initiate fundamental technological changes in the energy and transport sectors.” Policy changes can promote changes in our society that can lead to large reductions in carbon emissions while accounting for the economy and our lives. These measures should be accompanied by the capture of CO2 that already resides in the atmosphere.

The pandemic can teach us a lesson on how the planet can react to the greenhouse gases that we are pumping in the atmosphere, and can show us a path that can help us deal with the climate crisis. If only we will listen to it.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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