Steep fall in emissions during coronavirus is no cause for celebration

The sudden sharp fall in greenhouse gas emissions recorded in the early part of this year may seem like an environmental blessing, a breathing space as the world fights climate breakdown. Skies clear of aeroplanes and streets free of cars have encouraged the return of nature and brought visions of a cleaner world.

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.

In fact, 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. The causes of the steep fall, the economic convulsions and the possibility of lasting economic damage also mean urgent work must be done to repair the economy.

“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.”

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.”

“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.”

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.

“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.

Campaigners said the world must make the right choices on how to rebuild after the pandemic. They have called, along with leading economists, for a green recovery that would concentrate any stimulus cash on projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution, as well as generating jobs and increasing prosperity.

“When we move forward from this terrible situation, we have to make sure we hold on to the gains we’ve made in better air quality, lower carbon emissions and simple things like hearing birdsong,” said Jenny Bates, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “Councils should start by permanently changing how road space is used, allocating more to encourage walking and cycling, and making public transport work for everyone. Now is the time to scrap plans to expand airports and introduce a levy on the most frequent flyers.”

Governments facing such choices have a clear blueprint on how to ensure the recovery is green and sustainable, said Paul Morozzo, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK. “We know how to do it. We have to rebuild our cities around walking, cycling and public transport. We’ve got to create hundreds of thousands of jobs upscaling renewable energy and insulating people’s homes. Let’s learn from this tragedy, build back better and not make the mistake of ignoring the next crisis [of climate breakdown] heading our way.”

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