5% drop in emissions may not have permanent impact

ByJayashree Nandi
Apr 04, 2020 11:41 PM IST

New Delhi: For the first time in over 75 years the world is going to experience a modest decline in CO2 emissions but that is unlikely to result in any stabilisation in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere which leads to climate change, according to Rob Jackson, Chair of Global Carbon Project, a research initiative on carbon emissions.

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HT Image

Scientists are observing if the rate of rise in CO2 emissions record any decline but that too depends on how long lockdown conditions continue globally.

The economic decline because of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to give governments an idea of the magnitude of transformations needed in the coming decades to deal with climate change, scientists said.

The impact of Covid-19 on CO2 emissions will be temporary and there is likely to be a strong rebound effect when governments try to make up for the economic slowdown once the pandemic is brought under control. With billions of people in lockdown, including in the most populous countries like China and India, CO2 emissions are likely to dip in March and April if the lockdown continues.

“We will definitely see a drop this year in CO2 pollution from fossil fuel use. How much of a decline depends on how long the lockdown lasts and how quickly economies recover. We could see a massive drop in emissions of 5% or more if the virus and economic downturn linger. You’d have to go back to World War II to see anything close to that big a decline. But note that a 5% decline does not mean concentrations will drop. We would still be emitting ~35 billion metric tons fossil fuel pollution,” said Rob Jackson, chair, Global Carbon Project and Professor, Earth System Science at Stanford University over email.

He cautions that the global economic crisis should worry us. “If the economy tanks, climate action may be delayed in the interest of getting people back to work. I hope we put people back to work in green energy and technology, sectors that will result in lasting change.”

Many scientists have been worrying about this rebound. At Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, scientists are keeping a close eye on CO2 concentrations because this could be the first economic shock in several decades to slow the rise in concentrations.

Ralph Keeling, Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has estimated that global fossil fuel use will have to decline by 10% for a full year to show up a decline in CO2 concentrations. It would be a difference of only about 0.5 parts per million, according to Climate Home, an independent climate news portal based on Keeling’s observations.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) had warned about this on March 24 saying in a statement that “any cuts in emissions as a result of the economic crisis triggered by COVID19 are not a substitute for concerted climate action”. “Past experience suggests that emission declines during economic crises are followed by a rapid upsurge. We need to change that trajectory,” WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, had said.

Emissions represent what goes into the atmosphere while concentrations represent what remains in the atmosphere after the complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere and the oceans and CO2 remains in the atmosphere and oceans for centuries, WMO explained.

According to the Earth System Research Laboratory of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average CO2 concentrations this February is 414.11 ppm compared to 411.75 ppm last year. The average for March has not been updated yet but on March 29, 30 and 31, April 1 and 2 the concentrations ranged from 415. 60 to 415.81 ppm.

An analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has suggested that China’s CO2 emissions fell by around 25% over a four week period starting February 3 when travel restrictions were imposed in Wuhan and other cities. But demand slowly returned to normal levels over an extended seven-week period, bringing the reduction so far to around 250MtCO2, with emissions 18% lower than usual levels, the analysis said.

“Currently, global fossil fuel consumption is contracting dramatically as electricity demand, road traffic and aviation volumes fall as a result of the measures to mitigate coronavirus outbreaks. It seems almost certain that global CO2 emissions will fall this year due to the economic fallout of the virus. The disruption to supply chains, loss of sales and lost income for many workers will affect the economy in a profound way,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst of CREA, adding that “the longer-term impact on global emissions trends will depend on the policies that governments adapt to recover from the crisis. The best-case scenario is a green recovery that speeds up the transition to a clean energy and low-carbon future.” Lauri’s team also said India is likely to see a significant reduction in carbon emissions from the power sector this year due to the lockdown and after effects.

The US has already announced that it will roll back the US auto emission standards announced by the Obama administration. Sociologists recognise that the pandemic-led slowdown could be the reset moment for tackling climate change but governments may not seize it.

“Covid-19 pandemic created an unprecedented and unplanned social experiment…If the next UN negotiations fail, then all the comprehensive plans build on the last five years are going to fail… I don’t have any doubt that in the next UN negotiations, citing the Covid-19 situation, most of the big carbon emitters will request to defer the target and continue to use their existing fossil fuel resources,” said Pradip Swarnakar, Associate Professor of Sociology at IIT Kanpur.

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