Will an ‘unprecedented decline’ in carbon emissions help limit climate change?

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  • Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide are forecast to drop by about 8% in 2020.
  • An energy expert calls it “a historic shock to the entire energy world.”
  • Coal use has been especially hard hit during the lockdowns, as has natural gas use.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an “unprecedented decline” in global carbon emissions, a new report says.

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide – the greenhouse gas most responsible for global warming – are forecast to drop about 8% in 2020, a record annual decline that’s due to COVID-19 lockdowns. The restrictions have caused a massive plunge in fossil fuel use, according to a report released Thursday by the International Energy Agency.

“This is a historic shock to the entire energy world,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director, in a statement. “Amid today’s unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil, and gas. Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard of the slump in electricity use.”

“It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before,” Birol added.

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas releases “greenhouse” gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The emissions have caused the planet’s temperatures to rise to levels that cannot be explained by natural factors, scientists report.

In the past 20 years, the world’s temperature has risen about two-thirds of a degree Fahrenheit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

Smoke billows from a large steel plant on November 4, 2016 in Inner Mongolia, China. Over the industrial era, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 40%, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Will the drop in emissions help limit climate change?

An 8% cut in emissions is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, according to Carbon Brief. However, the target laid out in the Paris Agreement would require similar reductions every year this decade, not just for one year.








“A lockdown is just a one-off event, it can’t get you all the way there,” Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway, told the New York Times.

Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, tweeted Thursday that “despite the largest drop in global CO2 emissions ever recorded, the crisis will have minimal effects on CO2 concentrations and warming, which are based much more on the total (cumulative) emissions that have ever occurred than our emissions in a single year.

“The fact that the biggest global economic contraction since the Great Depression will not make a dent in future warming should be sobering,” he added.

So far this year, coal use has been especially hard hit during the lockdowns, as has natural gas use, the report said. Only renewable energy such as solar and wind is seeing a boom.



“Renewables are set to be the only energy source that will grow in 2020, with their share of global electricity generation projected to jump thanks to their priority access to grids and low operating costs,” according to the IEA.




Birol said that “this crisis has underlined the deep reliance of modern societies on reliable electricity supplies for supporting health care systems, businesses and the basic amenities of daily life. But nobody should take any of this for granted – greater investments and smarter policies are needed to keep electricity supplies secure.”

As for demand, the report projects that energy demand will fall 6% in 2020 – seven times the decline after the 2008 global financial crisis. In absolute terms, the decline is unprecedented – the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third-largest energy consumer, the IEA said.

Advanced economies are expected to see the biggest declines, with demand set to fall by 9% in the United States.

Overall, however, the IEA said that the drop in emissions is nothing to celebrate.

“Resulting from premature deaths and economic trauma around the world, the historic decline in global emissions is absolutely nothing to cheer,” said Birol. “And if the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve.”Credit: USATODAY

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