Record CO2 emissions drop in 2020 won’t do much to halt climate change


Paris streets

The streets of Paris were empty during the French lockdown in April

Robin Utrecht/Shutterstock

A record 7 per cent drop in global carbon emissions this year will make no difference to long-term climate change, say researchers.

The annual Global Carbon Budget report found covid-19 lockdowns reversed years of emissions rising worldwide, with France and the UK experiencing the steepest drops due to their long-lasting restrictions, at 15 and 13 per cent respectively.

Globally, the burning of fossil fuels released 34.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2020, down 2.3 billion tonnes on last year, the Global Carbon Budget team found. The biggest fall was the 0.84 billion tonnes of CO2 drop from transport, especially road traffic, with a steep dive in April when many countries had imposed limits on travel. After April, global emissions began recovering towards pre-pandemic heights.

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Team member Pierre Friedlingstein at the University of Exeter, UK, says we risk a repeat of the rebound in emissions after the 2009 financial crash. “The drop in 2020 alone, compared to what is accumulating in the atmosphere to now and what will continue to accumulate in the future, it would make no difference in the long run. To make a difference, this trend needs to be continued.”

Not all sectors were down: emissions from industry were slightly up on 2019, possibly because of China, where industrial activity recovered quickly after restrictions early in the year. The geography of the reductions was uneven too, with much of the fall driven by the US and Europe. China’s emissions were down just 0.15 billion tonnes of CO2.

Team member Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia, UK, says a rebound is very likely in 2021 because the drop this year was so big. “What is more difficult to say is what the size of the rebound will be in 2021, whether it will come back to 2019 level, or perhaps even higher,” she says.

Journal reference: Earth System Science Data, DOI: 10.5194/essd-12-1-2020

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