Climate crisis: CO2 remains at record levels despite Covid pandemic

The impact of lockdowns on emissions not enough to dent CO2 levels, says World Meteorological Organization

Daisy Dunne
Climate correspondent
Monday 23 November 2020 14:48 GMT
England’s nationwide lockdown will end on 2 December
England’s nationwide lockdown will end on 2 December (PA)

Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have continued to rise in 2020 despite the global Covid-19 pandemic, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Country-wide lockdowns put in place to protect people from the virus have caused a temporary dent to carbon emissions globally.

However, the fall in emissions has not been enough to reduce concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, says the WMO.

The results are published in the WMO’s annual greenhouse gas bulletin.

CO2 levels continued to rise in 2019, reaching a new height of 410 parts per million (ppm), according to the UN organisation.

“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer. The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20m higher than now. But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants,” said WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas.

“We breached the global threshold of 400ppm in 2015. And just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm. Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records. The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve."

At the height of global lockdowns, CO2 emissions were reduced by up to 17 per cent globally, according to estimates from the Global Carbon Project.

This is because lockdowns led to declines in transport use, electricity demand and some industry activity – all of which are key drivers of global CO2 emissions.

Preliminary estimates suggest that this will lead to an annual decrease in global CO2 emissions of between 4.2 and 7.5 per cent.

The WMO estimates that this annual decline in emissions will not be enough to significantly change concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Instead, CO2 levels will continue to rise, though at a slightly reduced pace when compared to last year, according to the bulletin.

A previous analysis by a team of scientists for the climate change website Carbon Brief published in May came up with similar findings.

Explaining why a reduction in emissions will not necessarily translate to a reduction in atmospheric CO2 levels, the scientists said: “An analogy is filling a bath from a tap. If the tap represents CO2 emissions, and the water level in the bath is CO2 concentrations, while we have slightly turned the tap down temporarily, water is still flowing into the bath and so the level is still rising. To slow climate change, the tap needs to be turned right down – and permanently.”

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