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Drop in emissions during lockdown will have ‘no effect’ on climate but signals an opportunity, study claims

The steep fall in global greenhouse gas emissions as a result of lockdowns during the pandemic will do “nothing” to slow climate change in the long run, an international team of researchers has said in a study published Friday.

The emissions from burning of coal, oil and gas is expected to drop eight percent in 2020 compared to the trend, since billions of people were confined to their homes to slow the spread of COVID-19. Without a systemic change in energy and agriculture, however, the emissions saved during lockdown will be all but meaningless, the study reports.

The researchers compiled open source emissions data from 120 countries between February and June 2020, looking at ten key greenhouse gases and air pollutants in particular. The emission of common pollutants like carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides dropped by somewhere between 10 and 30 percent, they found. Even so, the “massive behavioural shifts” that have taken place during the lockdown so far are unlikely to affect the climate – a measure of weather patterns over decades.

 Drop in emissions during lockdown will have no effect on climate but signals an opportunity, study claims

The emission drop during the lockdown won’t directly affect climate. But models show an opportunity to restructure the global economy to avoid the worst of climate change impacts.

In a predication model that accounted for travel restrictions and social distancing till the end of 2021, the team reported that the difference in warming by 2030 could be as little as 0.01 degree Celsius.

“Lockdown showed that we can change and change fast, but it also showed the limits of behaviour change,” Piers Forster, co-author of the study and director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at University of Leeds told AFP“Without underlying structural change we won’t make it.”

Many nations including India have committed to capping temperature rise by 2030 to “well below” two degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels through a variety of cuts in emissions in their respective countries.

The “safe” goal for the same is 1.5 degrees C. To meet this target, the UN had estimated a drop in global emissions by 7.6 percent annually was necessary over the current decade. This is close to the expected emission drop as a result of global lockdowns. Given that the lockdowns also prompted what could be one of the largest economic slowdowns in history, experts said it was unlikely to last or repeat as countries get on the road to recovery.

Carbon pollution levels during the pandemic dropped significantly. Image credit: Nature Climate Change/Le Quere et al

Carbon pollution levels during the pandemic dropped significantly. Image credit: Nature Climate Change/Le Quere et al

Published in Nature Climate Change, the study also models various paths forward for recovery post-lockdown. These options, the study authors said, show a “unique opportunity” to make structural changes to national and global economies. If an additional 1.2 percent of gross domestic product were invested in low carbon technology, emissions could be half of what they are today by 2030 in a fossil fuel-driven economic recovery, according to the research.

A return to business as usual after the pandemic passes would mean doing away with the “best chance of getting the world on track to net zero emissions”, Pete Smith, professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen, who was not involved in the study, told AFP.

“We have a small window of opportunity to get this right, and we can’t afford to waste it,” Smith added.

with inputs from wires

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