Emissions Dropped in Pandemic, Reports Show, but Not Enough

Average daily CO2 emissions between February and May 2020 (in red) compared with and previous years’ averages during the same period (gray). Dark gray horizontal bars show official lockdown periods. Light gray bars indicate partial lockdown or general restrictions. (U.N. image via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Pollution and greenhouse gases soared to a new record in 2020, even with the drop seen when the coronavirus pandemic rattled industrial sources this spring, weather researchers at the United Nations reported Monday.

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin released this morning by the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization is the group’s 16th annual analysis of emissions considered to be one of the main contributors to climate change.

While researchers found that carbon dioxide emissions dropped in cities like Berlin and Florence as stay-at-home orders shuttered offices and left far fewer cars on the road, greenhouse gases persisted at record-high levels.

The U.N. report points out that concentration of carbon dioxide warming our planet depends on fluxes in and out of Earth’s atmosphere. Oceans soak up the gas, for instance, while burning fossil fuels adds it to the atmosphere. 

Because CO2 accumulates over long periods of time, any net emissions greater than zero will increase its presence. That means the gas can trap more heat in the atmosphere, exacerbating the rate of warming and prompting more extreme weather events. 

Human-caused emissions have climbed precipitously in recent years. The few months of relative quiet at the pandemic’s onset — daily global CO2 may have declined by up to 17% — did little to decrease climate-warming gases overall, the report says. 

“The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph,” Petteri Taalas, chief of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement. “We need a sustained flattening of the curve.” 

Compared with 2019, early estimates suggest 2020 may see an overall reduction in greenhouse gases of 4.2% to 7.5%.

“At the global scale, an emission reduction of this magnitude will not cause atmospheric CO2 levels to decrease; they will merely increase at a slightly reduced rate,” the report states. 

Giving a nod to countries that have committed to carbon neutrality, Taalas emphasized that the Covid-19 pandemic “is not a solution for climate change.”

Beyond CO2, considered the most important greenhouse gas to climate change and accounting for two-thirds of global warming, the U.N. report analyzed the roles of gases methane and nitrous oxide.

Both gases’ emissions were slightly lower from 2018 to 2019 than the year before, but methane remained higher than average over the last decade, and nitrous oxide was just about average. 

The analysis says the new findings underscore the challenge of dramatically cutting emissions. 

“[T]he sooner we reduce our emissions, the less likely we are to overshoot the warming threshold the world agreed to in the Paris Agreement,” the report says. 

Coinciding with the U.N. report out of Geneva, data released Monday by the European Environment Agency shows improving air quality across the bloc but still a significant number of premature deaths caused by pollution.

This 164-page report focuses on the latest information about levels from 2018, linking fine particulate matter exposure to 417,000 deaths that year in 41 European countries. The United Kingdom and 27 member states of the EU accounted for 379,000 of those deaths.

But the report says this is still 60,000 fewer deaths than were found in 2009.

“It is good news that air quality is improving thanks to the environmental and climate policies that we have been implementing,” Virginijus Sinkevicius, European commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries, said in a statement.

“But we can’t ignore the downside — the number of premature deaths in Europe due to air pollution is still far too high.” 

The report says 34% of city dwellers across the EU’s 27 member states and the United Kingdom were exposed to ground-level ozone concentrations above Europe’s limits. Plus, 15% of people breathed fine particles — those with a diameter 10 micrometers or less — at forbidden levels. As for PM2.5, the designation for even finer particulate matter, only four member states (Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland) have air that is below the stricter guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

European Commissioner for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevicius speaks at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday during a media conference on the air quality in Europe for 2020. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool via AP)

Six member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Italy, Poland and Romania) exceeded the European Union’s limit value for PM2.5 in 2018.

Interestingly, the European Economic Area found an “absolute decoupling” of emissions from the economy. That is, emissions dropped even as economic activity ticked upward. The report suggests that increased regulation, switching fuels and technological or process changes could have caused the air quality changes. 

Like the U.N. report, the report from the European agency based in Copenhagen, Denmark,  credits stay-at-home orders in 2020 with temporarily improving air quality. The gas nitrous oxide dropped by 61% in Spain, 52% in France, and 48% in Italy when the countries imposed restrictions.

The EEA says it expects more positive health trends from cleaner air in 2020, but that such data is not yet final. Air pollution can cause respiratory and cardiovascular health problems that can be fatal.

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