Lockdown Emissions Drop Will Have No Effect on Climate. But the Right Recovery Could

A green recovery that invests in low carbon technologies, avoids fossil fuel lock-in, and cuts global emissions to net-zero by 2050 could put the planet on track to meeting the Paris Agreement goals and curbing climate change.

Figure a (left) is annual mean daily emissions from 1970–2019 (black line). The red line shows the daily emissions up to end of April 2020 estimated here. Figure b, is daily CO2 emissions in 2020 (red line, as in Figure a). (Le Quéré, et al. / Nature Climate Change)

(CN) — A study released Friday by the University of Leeds warns that though the sudden reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants during the Covid-19 lockdown is a good sign, it’s unlikely to lead to lasting impact on climate change. But if strong climate policy changes are implemented as part of an economic recovery plan, future warming could be halved in the next decade.

Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other emissions have fallen between 10 and 30% globally since February 2020 due to the massive behavioral shifts seen during lockdown. Despite this, the study predicts only a tiny impact on the climate by 2030, mainly because the decrease in emissions from confinement measures is temporary.

The team’s findings, published today in Nature Climate Change, predict that if post-COVID pollution returns to previous levels, there will be only 0.02 degree Fahrenheit reduction in global warming rates by 2030. But the study’s model also shows that a pathway with a strong green stimulus, investing around 1.2% of global GDP in low carbon technologies, and including climate policy measures, could prevent just over half a degree of additional warming by 2050.

Study lead author Professor Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds and principal investigator of the EU’s CONSTRAIN consortium, said, “The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.54 degrees Fahrenheit) of additional warming by mid-century, halving the expected warming under current policies. This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change.”

Researchers analyzed the global mobility data from Google and Apple. They calculated how 10 different greenhouse gases and air pollutants changed between February and June 2020 in 123 countries. The team developed a simple set of assumptions to estimate how lockdown emissions changes translated into temperature change — the direct effect of global lockdown on climate. 

These choices included economic recoveries driven by green stimulus packages or increasing reliance on fossil fuels, which were compared to a baseline reflecting a direct return to pre-Covid policies and associated emissions levels within the next two years.

In a model which assumed an additional 1.2% of GDP in low carbon technologies and reduced investment in fossil fuels, researchers predicted a 50% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and global net-zero CO2 by 2050.

The researchers concluded that investment choices in economic recovery will strongly affect the climate trajectory to mid-century. A green recovery that invests in low carbon technologies, avoids fossil fuel lock-in, and cuts global emissions to net-zero by 2050, would mean we avoid around 0.54 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by 2050 — half of the expected 1.08 degrees of warming under current policies.

Taking the Covid reset opportunity would also set the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal. In other words, avoiding the 0.54 degrees of warming could mean the difference between the world facing or avoiding dangerous climate change, according to the study.

Study co-author Matthew Gidden from Climate Analytics-Berlin said, “The lasting effect of Covid-19 on climate will not depend on what happens during the crisis, but what comes after. “Stimulus focused on green recovery and low-carbon investment can provide the economic kickstart needed while putting the world on track to meet climate pledges.”

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