Coronavirus crisis might trigger biggest drop in CO2 emissions since WWII

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Around 2.6 billion people — one-third of the world’s population — are currently under strict orders to stay at home in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That’s roughly the world’s population during WWII, one of the rare times when global carbon emissions saw a dent in their otherwise ever-increasing trend. We’re living another rare such moment, as nation-wide quarantines have shut down factories, grounded airplanes, and kept vehicles gathering dust in parking lots.

According to Rob Jackson, the chair of the Global Carbon Project, a scientific organization that seeks to quantify global greenhouse gas emissions and their causes, carbon output could fall by 5% this year.

This would make it the first dip in global carbon emissions since the 2008 financial crisis when there was a 1.4% year-to-year decrease in carbon output.

“I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5% or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two,” Jackson, who is a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University in California, told Reuters.

“Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings and loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is,” he added.

This might sound like good news, only it isn’t really.

Although climate change is the most menacing existential threat to both human civilization and wildlife, it is a slow-developing peril that we tend to not take as seriously as more pressing concerns.

The world has slowed down its carbon output greatly due to the pandemic. China alone saw a 25% reduction in its carbon emissions earlier this year after it shut down factories across the country. Once gray skylines are now sunny and reductions in pollution levels can be seen from space.

However, this otherwise welcome breather is not of our choice. The dent in carbon emissions due to all the wrong reasons. Once the pandemic is over, and life goes back to ‘normal’ — whatever that might entail — there is nothing to stop us from resuming our ever-increasing carbon output trajectory — or even accelerate it, as we try to make up for lost economic time.

According to Jackson, after the economy tanked during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, carbon emissions expectedly fell. However, they shot back up with fury, registering a 5.1% increase during the recovery.

Even this year’s forecasted drop in emissions is not enough to avert potentially catastrophic climate change. A U.N. report issued in 2019 found that global emissions would have to drop by 7.6% year-to-year, on average, if we’re to stand a chance to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We’re already 1 degree Celsius over Industrial Age levels. Today, global carbon emissions are roughly 150 times greater than during the 1850s.

So, in the grand scheme of things, this year’s drop in emissions isn’t really significant — even during this period of inactivity, emissions levels are still up to par with those experienced just a couple of years ago.

“Even if there is a decline in emissions in 2020, let’s say 10% or 20%, it’s not negligible, it’s important, but from a climate point of view, it would be a small dent if emissions go back to pre-COVID-19 crisis levels in 2021,” Pierre Friedlingstein, chair in mathematical modelling of the climate system at the University of Exeter in southwest England, told Reuters.

No doubt, we’re living in troubled times. Our focus needs to be on solving the current crisis. But once it inevitably fades away, the world cannot ignore the silent forces of destruction that scientists have warned about for years — pollution and global warming.

No one could predict the current coronavirus crisis, but scientists have warned that something like this might happen in the future given the extent of human encroachment on animal habitats — including those known to harbor viral reservoirs, such as bats — and globalization. Their warnings fell on deaf ears. Over 99% of climate scientists believe that climate change is due to human activity and represents a huge threat that needs to be urgently addressed. Will we listen now?

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