How COVID-19 Has Affected Global Warming

A recent study in Nature Climate Change looked at the reduction in CO2 emissions during the lockdown and offers some reasons for hope.
Tuesday 25 August 2020
The ice has been and is going to continue melting if we don't take the opportunity to take a stand against global warming. Photo: Agustin Lautaro /Unsplash

Everyone thought that there would be a reduction in CO2 emissions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when China began massive restrictions and lockdowns on its people . Then when the virus travelled across the oceans and hit nations all around the world, it was a big blow to the airline industry in particular and many were sure that this would reduce emissions even further. 

It’s a simple conclusion to come to, after all, with a significant amount of people forced indoors, unable to even go to the shop down the road let alone hop on a plane and travel across the globe.

CO2 emissions are what traps the sunlight in the ozone layer which in turn causes heat to get trapped and increase the earth’s temperature. According to the World Resource Institute, the main perpetrator of global warming is actually the burning of fossil fuels for energy and heat as it collectively accounts to about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Following right after that is transportation, which the WRI states accounted for 24% of the emissions in 2016.


Traffic is a major contributor towards greenhouse gas emissions, but with COVID-19 we can see the effect of reducing the cars on the streets. Photo: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)


A team of 14 researchers evaluated data from Apple and Google on mobility during the health crisis in a study published in Nature Climate Change. Their results show that close to four billion people cut down on travel by 50% during a period that extended from February to June 2020, prompting a significant reduction in CO2 emissions worldwide. In early April alone, coronavirus lockdowns led to a 17% reduction worldwide in carbon pollution compared to the same period last year, according to the first peer-reviewed assessment of the pandemic’s impact on CO2 emissions, published in Nature Climate Change.

It’s great news for the ongoing fight against global warming, but let’s not count our chickens before the eggs have hatched. The impact of the reduction will be largely ephemeral due to its limited duration. The authors of the study noted that structural measures must accompany a major change in the behaviour of the world’s population if global warming is to be halted.


Smoke billowing from a power plant in Germany; the main villain to fight are the carbon emissions produced from the mass burning of fossil fuels for energy and heat. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP


Their research shows how a reduction in CO2 emissions on a scale with the one occasioned by the lockdown could if it was reinforced by structural economic measures, effectively combat global warming. In short, the pandemic has offered a snapshot experiment into a solution towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is a temporary reduction that needs to be permanent. In the study, the authors point out that even if the lockdowns were extended until the end of 2021, the impact on global warming would only amount to 0.1°C by 2030. 


This chart shows the differences between 2019 and 1981-2010, we’re looking mighty hot. Photo: Jonathan WALTER/AFP


Under the 2015 Paris climate treaty, nearly 200 nations pledged to cap global warming at “well below” 2°C. But the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) subsequently determined that 1.5°C is a far safer temperature guardrail.

The pandemic has underscored just how difficult it will be to hit that more ambitious target. Emissions must fall 7.6 % – in line with the worst-case lockdown scenario for 2020 – every year this decade to ensure the 1.5°C cap, unless other means are found to remove carbon from the atmosphere, scientists calculate.


Mother Nature in turmoil all around the world due to the increase in temperature. Photo: FRED TANNEAU/AFP


Taking Opportunity

Professor Piers Forster who led the study, states that a major change in human behaviour will not be enough in itself to put an end to global warming. He recommends taking advantage of a post-COVID opportunity to implement structural change in the economy with the objective of reducing emissions to a figure close to zero. The pandemic has shown the extent that the world needs to go to just to make even the smallest dent in the fight against global warming. 

Which may prove a difficult task when the WRI reports that a lot of initiatives and meetings that were meant to discuss climate change have been postponed or cancelled slowing the movement when it was gaining momentum. Not all hope is lost if the countries and governments decide now is the time to make these changes. 


Renewable energy efforts need to be bolstered in the wake of the pandemic. Photo: Jean-Francois MONIER / AFP


The three sectors targeted by the researchers are industry, transport and power generation as mentioned above being the main villains in this story. They notably argue for a massive investment in renewable energy and a policy that prevents any fossil fuel lock-ins or bailouts. And they explore the impact of these measures in two scenarios, one that is relatively moderate and another that is much more radical. 

However, in both cases, governments will have to make important decisions in favour of the environment to avoid the most harmful consequences of global warming and create a more resilient future.


Source: AFP Relax News