UN Report: Carbon Emissions Back to Near Pre-Pandemic Levels

Scientists warned that the world is still not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a goal of the landmark Paris climate agreement.

Smoke billows from a plant just outside Paris last November. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

(CN) — Despite a brief but record-breaking drop in climate change-causing carbon emissions during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, global emissions have already rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, a group of leading science organizations said Wednesday.

The finding and its dire implications for the planet were detailed in a new report from United in Science 2020, a climate science effort from the United Nations, the World Meteorological Association and other organizations.

In the report, scientists said that while the pandemic is expected to lead to an overall drop in carbon emissions this year because of “confinement measures” around the world that massively stunted economic activity and travel, emissions in early June had already “mostly returned” to a range just below their 2019 levels as those measures eased and economies began reopening.

Even with the temporary drop in emissions, the years 2016 to 2020 are still expected to become the planet’s warmest five-year period on record, the report concluded.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a foreword to the report. “At the same time, the heating of our planet and climate disruption has continued apace. Record heat, ice loss, wildfires, floods and droughts continue to worsen, affecting communities, nations and economies around the world.”

The report noted that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere “showed no signs of peaking” despite the pandemic. In July, key monitoring stations in Hawaii and Tasmania reported CO2 concentrations above 410 parts per million, the report said, with both station’s readings showing an increase from the year before. The figures represent a substantial increase from the late 1950s, when CO2 concentrations measured about 316 parts per million.

While the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere might increase at a slower pace this year because of the pandemic, scientists warned that the world is still not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a goal of the landmark Paris climate agreement and the level at which experts say the worst impacts of climate change could be avoided.

“This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated,” Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, wrote in his foreword to the report.

The scientists said climate change monitoring efforts have been disrupted by the pandemic as well, as research ships were called back to ports, ocean surveys were cancelled and the deployment of autonomous climate-measuring instruments like ocean buoys slowed.

The report’s warnings come as California continues to suffer from wildfires that have burned more than 2 million acres since the beginning of the year, a new record for the state. Scientists have attributed the conditions that enabled the fires to climate change, while another study published Wednesday in the Journal of Climate warned that global warming’s effect on the Earth’s “water cycle” could lead to exacerbated droughts and worsening wildfires around the world.

In the U.N. report, scientists called for “transformational action” to move the world away from fossil fuels and meet the goals of the Paris agreement, saying it “can no longer be postponed.” They also urged policymakers to use the recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to “build back better.”

“A key example is the cost declines of renewable energy, which continue to outpace projections,” the report said. “Renewables are by now the cheapest source of new power generation in most parts of the world, with the global weighted average purchase or auction price for new solar power photovoltaic systems and onshore wind turbines now competitive with the marginal operating cost of existing coal plants by 2020.”

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