Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen strongly to a new peak this year, despite the impact of the global effects of the coronavirus crisis.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 417.2 parts per million in May, 2.4ppm higher than the peak of 414.8ppm in 2019, according to readings from the Mauna Loa observatory in the US.
Without worldwide lockdowns intended to slow the spread of Covid-19, the rise might have reached 2.8ppm, according to Ralph Keeling, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He said it was likely they had played a small role, but that the difference was too small to show up against other factors causing year-to-year fluctuations.
“People may be surprised to hear that the response to the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t done more to influence CO2 levels,” he said. “But the buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up. The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation.”
Daily emissions of carbon dioxide fell by an average of about 17% around the world in early April, according to the a comprehensive study last month. As lockdowns are eased, however, the fall in emissions for the year as a whole is only likely to be only between 4% and 7% compared with 2019. That will make no appreciable difference to the world’s ability to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, and keep global heating below the threshold of 2C that scientists say is necessary to stave off catastrophic effects.
If emissions reductions of 20% to 30% were sustained for six to 12 months, then the rate of increase of CO2 measured at Mauna Loa would slow, according to the Scripps scientists.
This year’s rise is slightly weaker than last year’s, but matches the average annual rise for the past decade. The amount of carbon fluctuates based on various factors, including the effects of the El Niño weather system in the Pacific.
Carbon dioxide tends to peak each year in late May, when the impacts of the northern hemisphere spring have yet to take effect, so the month’s data is compared from year to year. Measurements have been taken continuously at the remote Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii since 1958, providing vital information for climate scientists.
The latest data comes from Scripps scientists at the University of California San Diego and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They found that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere first rose above 400ppm in 2014. The annual rate of growth in emissions has been speeding up.
In the 1960s, the annual growth averaged about 0.8ppm, doubling to 1.6ppm a year in the 1980s and remaining steady at 1.5ppm in the 1990s. The average growth rate increased to about 2.0ppm a year in the 2000s, and has risen further to about 2.4ppm during the last decade.
John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, called on the British government to do more as hosts of the next UN climate talks, Cop26, now postponed until 2021. “Just a few months of lower emissions were never likely to make a dent in the hundreds of billions tonnes of carbon that have built up over a century and a half of burning fossil fuels,” he said.
“That’s why the drop in emissions caused by the pandemic will remain just a blip unless governments get serious about building a cleaner, healthier and safer world.”
Muna Suleiman, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “ It’s clear that climate breakdown isn’t a distant idea, it’s here right now, and we have to treat it like the emergency it is.”
The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide observed at a government facility in Hawaii reached a new peak in May, scientists from National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and the University of California San Diego said Thursday.
Last month, that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere recording at the at Mauna Loa observatory was as high as 417.1 parts per million (ppm).
According to a NOAA statement, this was the highest monthly carbon dioxide level ever recorded. It was 2.4 ppm higher than the 2019 peak of 414.7 ppm.
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Carbon dioxide levels measure how much of the gas there is in the atmosphere. This is different from carbon dioxide emissions, which measure how much new carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
The rate of increase this year did not appear to reflect the drop in emissions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Studies have shown that the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is expected to drop this year due to a decrease in energy usage.
“The buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up,” said Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Oceanography program at Mauna Loa, in a statement.
“The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation,” Keeling added.
Using a Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) nanocomposite that can be regenerated with remarkable speed and low energy cost, researchers have developed sponge-like technology that can capture carbon dioxide from a number of sources, even directly from air.
The magnetic sponge is used to remove carbon dioxide using the same techniques as induction cooktops using one-third of the energy than any other reported method.
Associate Professor Matthew Hill (CSIRO and Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University) and Dr. Muhammad Munir Sadiq (Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University) led this research.
In the study, published in Cell Reports Physical Science, researchers designed a unique adsorbent material called M-74 CPT@PTMSP that delivered a record low energy cost of just 1.29 MJ kg-1CO2 , 45 per cent below commercially deployed materials, and the best CCS efficiency recorded.
MOFs are a class of compounds consisting of metal ions that form a crystalline material with the largest surface area of any material known. In fact, MOFs are so porous that they can fit the entire surface of a football field in a teaspoon.
This technology makes it possible to store, separate, release or protect valuable commodities, enabling companies to develop high value products.
“Global concerns on the rising level of greenhouse gas emissions and the associated environmental impact has led to renewed calls for emissions reduction and the development of green and renewable alternative energy sources,” Associate Professor Hill said.
“However, existing commercial carbon capture technologies use amines like monoethanolamine, which is highly corrosive, energy intensive and captures a limited amount of carbon from the atmosphere.
“Our research shows the lowest reported regeneration energy calculated for any solid porous adsorbent, including monoethanolamine, piperazine and other amines. This makes it a cheap method that can be paired with renewable solar energy to capture excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Essentially, we can capture CO2 from anywhere. Our current focus is for capture directly from the air in what are known as negative emissions technologies.”
For MOFs to be used in CCS applications, it is essential to have materials that can be easily fabricated with good stability and performance.
The stability of M-74 CPT@PTMSP was evaluated by estimating the amount of CO2 and H2O captured and released via the researchers’ magnetic induction swing adsorption (MISA) process over 20 consecutive cycles.
The regeneration energy calculated for M-74 CPT@PTMSP is the lowest reported for any solid porous adsorbent. At magnetic fields of 14 and 15 mT, the regeneration energy calculated for M-74 CPT was 1.29 and 1.44 MJ kg CO2-1.
New research indicates that parts of the Amazon and other tropical forests are now emitting more CO2 than they absorb. Some scientists are concerned this development, which is not yet incorporated into climate models, could put the temperature goals set by the Paris Agreement out of reach.
It is not often you meet a scientist breathless with excitement about their new findings. But it happened to me last September at the National Institute for Space Research in the Brazilian research city of Sao Jose dos Campos. Atmospheric chemist Luciana Gatti was rushing to tell her colleagues the result of her latest analysis of carbon dioxide emissions from the Amazon rainforest, which she had completed that morning.
For a decade, her team had been sampling the air from sensors on aircraft flying over the world’s largest rainforest. Their collating of recent results showed that, perhaps for the first time in thousands of years, a large part of the Amazon had switched from absorbing CO2 from the air, damping down global warming, to being a “source” of the greenhouse gas and thus speeding up warming.
“We have hit a tipping point,” Gatti almost shouted, caught between elation at her discovery and anguish at the consequences.
As she spoke, fires were burning across the Amazon, making headlines around the globe. But her findings were not the short-term result of the fires. They were based on measurements from before the upsurge in fires, and showed a long-term trend. She had previously observed the same thing briefly during drought years. But now it no longer mattered if it was a wet or a dry year, or how many fires there were, the sink had become a source. “Each year it gets worse,” she said. “We have to stop deforestation while we work out what to do.”
Gatti asked me to keep silent for the time being, while she prepared her data for publication. When I contacted her this month, her paper was still being finalized. But I can now tell the story. It vividly illustrates a growing dismay among climate scientists, who are seeing ecosystems around the world going the way of the Amazon.
Without such “carbon sinks,” global warming to date would have been twice as great and already exceeded the 2-degree target.
The scientists are warning that past climate models used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not fully reflected the scale of the warming that lies ahead as carbon sinks die. These revelations are coming from three areas of research:
Studies such as Gatti’s in the Amazon, showing forests turning from sinks to sources of CO2;
A new generation of climate models that incorporate these findings into future projections of climate change, and whose early outputs are just emerging;
Recent revelations that ecosystems are releasing rising volumes of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas and of vital importance for temperatures in the next couple of decades.
The extra emissions, known as carbon-cycle feedbacks, could already be making the prospect of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius — the target agreed to in the Paris climate accord in 2015 — all but impossible. The new modeling is likely to result in more pessimistic projections in the next scientific assessment from the IPCC, which is due — coronavirus-permitting — in April 2021.
Our planet’s land and oceans currently take up about half of all the CO2 we put into the atmosphere. The gas dissolves in seawater and is absorbed by growing plants. Without these “carbon sinks,” warming to date would have been twice as great. We would already have exceeded the 2-degree target. But the question now is whether the take-up will remain as it is, or diminish.
That depends on how ecosystems respond to the extra gas in the air. This response takes two competing forms. First, the extra CO2 speeds up plant growth. This fertilization effect means that forests absorb more CO2 as they grow, slowing the build-up in the air. Good news.
But the bad news is that the higher temperatures, also brought about by the added CO2, are pulling in the other direction, reducing nature’s ability to soak up CO2. This happens because warmer ocean waters dissolve less CO2, while soils release more of the gas and some forests suffer heat stress and die or catch fire.
Both these feedbacks are in play. But the debilitating effects of the warming, especially when combined with deforestation, are becoming increasingly dominant, ecologists say. That is what Gatti has seen in the Amazon. And the trend is often happening faster than expected.
Gatti’s findings, while relating to the southeast of the Amazon, the region’s most heavily deforested area, suggest that the rainforest as a whole could be close to flipping from a sink to a source of CO2. The ability of intact areas of the rainforest to absorb CO2 have already halved since the 1990s, says Carlos Nobre of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most noted climate scientist. Passing the tipping point for the whole forest would release more than 50 billion tons of carbon, he said recently, which is the equivalent of five years of global fossil-fuel and industrial emissions
Non-tropical forests remain largely in carbon “sink” mode. But other tropical rainforests appear to be following the Amazon in moving toward becoming carbon sources. Wannes Hubau, now at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium, reported recently that “overall, the uptake of carbon into Earth’s intact tropical forests peaked in the 1990s” and has been declining since. The jungles of tropical Africa began showing increased carbon losses around 2010, he found.
Some researchers think these alarming findings are unlikely to be realistic in future predictions and should be dismissed.
Another big concern is the impact of thawing permafrost. This frozen ground, which covers large areas of the far north, holds hundreds of billions of tons of carbon that could be released as the land thaws. How much and how fast is an unresolved question. But the signs are not good. One recent study in northern Canada found thawing had reached depths “already exceeding those projected to occur by 2090.”
The risks of such rapid runaway carbon releases to the atmosphere have been worrying ecologists for a while. That worry is now being reinforced by the projections of a new generation of climate models designed to factor in how ecosystems respond to climate change.
Until now, most climate models have largely confined themselves to assessing how our CO2 emissions warm the air, and how that warming interacts with physical feedbacks such as reduced ice cover, elevated atmospheric water vapor, and changes to clouds. This remains a work in progress. I wrote here on Yale Environment 360 in February how new field research suggests that the ability of clouds to keep us cool could be drastically reduced as the world warms, pushing global heating into overdrive.
When ecological feedbacks have been included in the models, it has mostly been in a very simplistic way. But new models being developed for the next IPCC assessment of climate science are changing that. For the first time, they capture the full range of possibilities for how nature’s ability to soak up CO2 may change as the climate changes, says Richard Betts of Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre, one of the world’s top climate modeling groups. His initial assessment of the early outcomes of these new models is sounding alarm bells.
Writing with Zeke Hausfather, of the Breakthrough Institute, in a blog this month on the website Carbon Brief, he warns that many of the projections of the new models “end up with much higher CO2 concentrations by 2100.” That means more warming. “The combination of high climate sensitivity and high carbon-cycle feedbacks could result in substantial warming, even under more moderate emissions scenarios,” they say.
Even a scenario that is “reasonably consistent with currently enacted climate policies” could deliver up to 5 degrees C of warming rather than the current estimate of 3 degrees. This, Betts says, is “because the upper end of possible feedbacks results in 40 percent more CO2 in the air than previously supposed: 936 parts per million [ppm] by 2100, compared to a prediction without the carbon-cycle feedbacks of 670 ppm.” (Current levels are 415 ppm, and pre-industrial levels were around 280 ppm.)
And if the world backtracks on existing climate policies, things could be a great deal worse. One such scenario based on this produced an almost unimaginable warming of 7.7 degrees C (13.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, rather than the 6 degrees C predicted without the carbon-cycle feedbacks.
Some researchers think such alarming findings should be dismissed out of hand. Katarzyna Tokarska of ETH Zurich, with others, claimed recently that models with extreme warming would not accurately “predict” current climate — and so were biased and unlikely to be realistic in their future predictions. According to these researchers, this means that, with “ambitious” action to reduce emissions, the world could meet the temperature target set by the Paris Agreement.
But others say that if climate change pushes ecosystems such as the Amazon beyond key tipping points, then the present is unlikely to be a reliable guide to the future.
The growing concern about CO2 feedbacks comes amid news of a trend in rising atmospheric levels of methane.
Peter Cox of the University of Exeter first introduced the carbon cycle into climate modeling in a 2000 paper that predicted that “carbon-cycle feedbacks could significantly accelerate climate change over the 21st century.” He says today that even he has been “surprised by the large increases in CO2 in recent models when carbon-cycle feedbacks are switched on.” He warns that while the new models may not yet be accurate representations of the future, “they are very helpful to reveal the sensitivities of the real world.”
So it is a shame that not all these new carbon-savvy predictions will be included in the next IPCC assessment, as first intended. Hausfather says that the international effort to develop the new models is running “a year behind schedule,” and many of them will miss the deadline for being included as new research findings in the assessment, which is this October.
The growing concern about CO2 feedbacks comes on top of alarm about trends in atmospheric levels of the second most important greenhouse gas, methane. These are more than twice pre-industrial levels, and after a decade of stability until 2007 they have been rising again sharply. The National Oceanic and Space Administration (NOAA) estimated this month that methane levels in the atmosphere reached a record 1,875 parts per billion in 2019, after the second largest year-on-year leap ever recorded.
How come? Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London, says isotopic analysis shows industrial emissions such as those from fracking remain important sources of methane. But the major reason for the recent upsurge is microbial emissions, mostly from the tropics.
Microbial emissions include agricultural sources such as rice paddies and the guts of cattle, but also microbes in natural ecosystems, particularly wetlands. When Nisbet flew from Uganda to Zambia collecting air samples last year, he found what he called “a great plume of methane” rising from wetland swamps around Lake Victoria and Lake Bangweulu. Mark Lunt of Edinburgh University has also found a dramatic increase in emissions from the Sudd, a vast wetland downstream of Lake Victoria on the Nile in South Sudan. The presumption is that warmer temperatures are making microbes more active.
None of this methane increase is built into even the new climate models with carbon-cycle feedbacks. These models mostly assume that methane levels in the air will remain stable. But the concern is growing that, even if technology can reduce industrial emissions, a warmer world will drive a continuing surge in methane levels — and more warming as a consequence.
That is a very big problem for efforts to meet the Paris target of halting warming below 2 degrees C.
Methane typically lasts in the atmosphere for only a decade – much less than CO2. But while it is there, it packs a big warming punch. Measured over 20 years, each molecule of methane emitted has 84 times more warming effect than each molecule of CO2.
Climate models conventionally assess the warming impacts of greenhouse gases over a century. This effectively tunes them to emphasize the importance of C02, and relegates methane to an also-ran. But if they were tuned to the shorter timeframe, methane would appear almost three times more important.
It seems odd that this shorter timeframe is rarely adopted, given that the world risks exceeding its two-degree warming limit by 2050. As Nisbet puts it, if natural ecosystems keep pumping out more methane as the world warms, “it may become very difficult to meet the Paris goals.”
Nature, it seems, is biting back. Having so far absorbed our pollution indiscretions, it now seems to be making them worse. We only have ourselves to blame.
The Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet —and scientists still aren’t completely sure why.
Melting snow and ice may be speeding up the warming. Changes in atmospheric circulation could be playing a role. Many factors could be influencing the region’s temperatures, which are rising at least twice as fast as the rest of the world.
Now, scientists think they may have discovered an additional piece of the puzzle. Plants, it turns out, may have an unexpected influence on global warming.
As carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere, plants become more efficient at carrying out photosynthesis and other basic life functions. And they’re often able to save more water in the process.
Water that plants exchange with the air helps cool local temperatures. When they lose less water, their surroundings start to warm up.
A study published last month in Nature Communications suggests that this process is helping to warm the Arctic.
“The influence of plants has been overlooked before,” said study co-author Jin-Soo Kim, a scientist at the University of Edinburgh, in an email to E&E News. “This study highlights the vegetation impacts on Arctic warming under [an] elevated CO2 world.”
The study used a suite of earth system models to arrive at its findings.
The models suggest that rising CO2—the result of human greenhouse gas emissions—is causing plants to lose less water throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including densely vegetated regions in the tropics and the midlatitudes. This process causes temperatures in these places to warm even more than they would from climate change alone.
At the same time, large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns help transport heat between the tropics and the Arctic. The study suggests that this extra heat is warming the Arctic at an even faster rate.
In fact, the extra warming may actually contribute to other processes also speeding up Arctic climate change.
For instance, scientists believe that melting sea ice plays a big role in Arctic warming. Sea ice, with its bright, reflective surface, helps to beam sunlight away from the planet. As ice disappears, more sunlight —and more heat —is able to get through to the surface of the Earth.
The extra heat drifting up from the lower latitudes may be helping to melt sea ice at faster rates, the researchers suggest. And this, in turn, also contributes to faster Arctic warming.
‘AN IMPORTANT UNKNOWN’
Overall, the study estimates that the plant effect may account for nearly 10% of the Arctic’s warming each year. And it could explain as much as 28% of the warming across the Northern Hemisphere’s lower latitudes.
But there’s still a lot of uncertainty about those estimates.
The scientists used an ensemble of eight models in their study and considered all the model results together. But from one model to the next, there are pretty large differences in the size of the plant effect.
That may be partly because the response of sea ice is still uncertain and tends to vary among different models.
But there’s also been some debate among scientists about the exact effect of rising CO2 on plants.
Plants take in CO2, and also exchange water with the atmosphere, through tiny pores in their leaves called stomata. More CO2 means plants don’t have to keep their stomata open so wide. They can still get enough carbon dioxide through smaller openings, and they can save water in the process.
On the other hand, more CO2 can sometimes cause an increase in plant growth—and when there are more plants around, there’s more water being exchanged with the atmosphere.
These two effects—more plant growth, but also smaller stomata openings—can have conflicting effects on local temperatures.
For now, recent studies suggest that the stomata effect tends to win.
“I think it’s pretty clear that in many ecosystems, we actually don’t see as much plant growth as we sort of naively think we should by bumping up the CO2,” said Leander Anderegg, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Carnegie Institution for Science who commented on the new research for E&E News. “And there, the increase in these plants using water more efficiently and closing stomata definitely offsets the growth aspect.”
But, he added, the exact size of these effects is still uncertain and can vary from place to place.
“I think that it’s something that is pretty well-established that it’s sort of like an important unknown,” he said.
So scientists are still working to understand exactly how much influence plants have on the global climate. But other studies also suggest they may play an important role.
Previous research published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the plant effect will increase global warming beyond what scientists would otherwise expect, based on climate change projections. Other studies, such as a 2018 analysis in Nature Communications, have suggested that the same effect will amplify extreme heat events, causing more frequent and more intense heat waves.
And still other studies have linked the plant effect to regional climate patterns in places outside the Arctic. For instance, one study published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2018 found that reduced water loss from plants may contribute to a drying pattern in the Amazon.
This is all an emerging area of research, with the exact magnitude of the effects still unclear. As a result, the effect is not well-represented —if at all —in most climate models.
According to Kim, that means there’s a chance that some model projections could be underestimating future climate change, particularly in the Arctic. More research may clarify whether that’s actually the case and exactly how much plants are contributing to the warming that’s happening all over the globe.
For now, the fact that many studies with many models all seem to be converging on the same basic idea gives scientists more confidence that they’re on the right track, Anderegg said.
“And even if we have some amazing breakthroughs in how we model plants … I think what’s absolutely durable about the paper is how plants respond to CO2 isn’t gonna save us,” he added.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.
“Globally, we haven’t seen a drop this big ever, and at the yearly level, you would have to go back to World War II to see such a big drop in emissions.”
The 110 freeway toward downtown Los Angeles on April 28, 2020.Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file
By Denise Chow
The coronavirus pandemic has forced countries around the world to enact strict lockdowns, seal borders and scale back economic activities. Now, an analysis published Tuesday finds that these measures contributed to an estimated 17 percent decline in daily global carbon dioxide emissions compared to daily global averages from 2019.
It’s a worldwide drop that scientists say could be the largest in recorded history.
At the height of coronavirus confinements in early April, daily carbon dioxide emissions around the world decreased by roughly 18.7 million tons compared to average daily emissions last year, falling to levels that were last observed in 2006, according to the new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Drastic changes in transportation, industrial activities and air travel in nations under lockdowns could also fuel a decrease in this year’s annual carbon emissions of up to 7 percent, the study found. Though significant, scientists say these declines are unlikely to have a long-term impact once countries return to normal unless governments prioritize investments and infrastructure to reduce harmful emissions.
“Globally, we haven’t seen a drop this big ever, and at the yearly level, you would have to go back to World War II to see such a big drop in emissions,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., and the study’s lead author. “But this is not the way to tackle climate change — it’s not going to happen by forcing behavior changes on people. We need to tackle it by helping people move to more sustainable ways of living.”
The study found that the sharpest decline in carbon emissions — making up 43 percent of the total decrease — came from reduced traffic from cars, buses and trucks. Emissions from industrial activities, which were ramped down substantially in the hardest-hit nations, fell by 19 percent.
Emissions from air travel, which experienced a staggering 75 percent drop in daily activity in early April, fell by 60 percent. That decline, however, made up a much smaller portion of the overall decrease because air travel typically accounts for only 2.8 percent of yearly global carbon emissions.
“Air traffic was down two-thirds, but surface transport — cars and trucks — is almost 10 times bigger in terms of emissions,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and a co-author of the study.
The pandemic will likely also cause this year’s annual carbon emissions to drop by between 4 percent to 7 percent, depending on how long strict social-distancing measures remain in effect and how quickly economies rebound.
In early April, the deepest decreases in daily global carbon emissions — 17 percent declines compared to daily averages last year — lasted for about two weeks, according to Jackson. Individual countries saw an average drop in emissions of 26 percent at the peak of their lockdowns, which occurred earlier for several countries in Asia, where the coronavirus emerged in late December, and more recently for parts of Europe and North America.
The study did not account for how global emissions could be affected by new outbreaks and subsequent wave of infections, but it’s likely that such events could lead to steeper declines in emissions this year and possibly into 2021.
“If the outbreak lasts longer, we’ll have more depressed economic activity in 2021,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved with the new study. “It’s likely at this point that 2021 emissions will be below 2019 emissions but higher than 2020, unless things take a turn for the worse.”
In the new analysis, the researchers examined lockdown measures in 69 countries that are responsible for 97 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Since there is no way to measure carbon dioxide emissions in real time, the scientists used data on how six key economic sectors, including industrial activities, ground transportation and air travel, were affected in each country from January through April. They then calculated how emissions in these sectors, and their contribution to yearly emissions, changed based on the severity of each nation’s social-distancing restrictions.
The scientists did estimate a 2.8 percent increase in emissions from residential buildings during this time, likely from people working from home and consuming more electricity in households, Le Quéré said. It’s possible, she added, that this bump could increase if the pandemic lingers through the summer and homes in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere ramp up use of air conditioning.
Though declining emissions make for unexpected good news against the backdrop of the pandemic, these reductions have come at a high societal cost. The changes are also unlikely to last once restrictions on people’s movements and daily lives are lifted. And though these declines are largely unparalleled in modern history, they also demonstrate how difficult it is to make significant dents in global emissions.
“Despite all of the changes that are happening around the world to our lifestyle and consumption behaviors, we’re only going to see a reduction of 7 percent this year,” Hausfather said. “It goes to show just how big a challenge decarbonization really is.”
Before the pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions had been increasing by approximately 1 percent a year over the past decade. A drop in emissions in one year is something, but it’s not enough to slow the accelerated pace of climate change.
“Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time, so climate change is driven more by the total amount we’ve ever emitted than any amount we emit in a single year,” Hausfather said. “From a climate standpoint, what really matters is long-term systemic changes that can drive emission declines over decades.”
Decreases from 4 percent to 7 percent are roughly in line with how much global emissions would need to fall each year to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees to 2 degrees Celsius, as outlined under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
“We would have to have the same speed of reduction that’s happening in 2020 every year for the next decade,” Hausfather said.
But Le Quéré said she hopes the study’s findings will encourage countries to think about solutions that promote economic recovery without sacrificing climate action.
“We’re at a crossroads,” she said. “It’s about governments having vision and being forward thinking. What society do we need to build tomorrow to reduce the risks of more disasters?”
There is cause to be optimistic, Jackson said, because some of the environmental changes from the coronavirus pandemic could be readily seen or felt.
“The most obvious change was the beautiful blue skies we saw from India to Indiana,” he said. “People can relate to that more than abstract discussions about greenhouse gas emissions — you could just see that skies were clear.”
The wheels we humans have set in motion concerning carbon dioxide emissions and climate change are going to take some stopping, and the latest data from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory are another clear indicator of this. Scientists there have logged record concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, in line with a steady trend that defies even the widespread and stringent slowdown in global activity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Scientists have been monitoring the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Hawaii since 1958, and have plotted a steadily accelerating upward curve in that time. Measured as parts per million (ppm), concentrations of below 350 ppm are what experts consider safe to preserve a livable planet, but data from monitoring stations has shown we are now well beyond that point.
During the 1960s when carbon concentrations were in the low 300s ppm, levels rose gradually at a rate of around 0.9 ppm per year. Fast-forward to the 2010 to 2019 period, and concentrations increased at a rate of 2.4 ppm per year, indicating that upward trend is only accelerating.
In May last year, scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 415.26 ppm. This was a level never reached before, but has been upstaged just 12 months later with a new reading of 416.21 ppm. Using ice core records to measure CO2 concentrations across the planet’s history, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) confirm these levels have not been seen on Earth in 800,000 years.
As a very separate phenomenon, the lockdowns spurred by the global spread of the coronavirus have led to significant reductions in some types of air pollution, namely harmful nitrogen dioxide and small particulate matter. This has been driven by a slowdown in air travel, road traffic and industrial activity, but the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) notes that the global energy mix has remained the same, with around two thirds generated by burning fossil fuels.
While the pandemic is causing dips in carbon emissions in some locations, these are expected to be short-lived, and with the same underlying energy infrastructure the UNEP says that “none of the fundamentals” have changed. And without a serious transformation on this front, we are unlikely to undo the cumulative effects of decades worth of human-generated carbon emissions entering the atmosphere.
“Without fundamental shifts in global energy production, we should have no reason to expect a lasting reduction in emissions,” says UNEP climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg. “COVID-19 instead provides us a chance to take stock of the risks we are taking in our unsustainable relationship with our environment and seize the opportunity to rebuild our economies in more environmentally responsible ways.”
Wait, what? Even with the global economy at a near-standstill, the best analysis suggests that the world is still on track to release 95 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year, continuing to heat up the planet and driving climate change even as we’re stuck at home.
A 5.5-percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions would still be the largest yearly change on record, beating out the financial crisis of 2008 and World War II. But it’s worth wondering: Where do all of those emissions come from? And if stopping most travel and transport isn’t enough to slow down climate change, what will be?
Transportation makes up a little over 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. (In the United States, it makes up around 28 percent.) That’s a significant chunk, but it also means that even if all travel were completely carbon-free (imagine a renewable-powered, electrified train system, combined with personal EVs and battery-powered airplanes), there’d still be another 80 percent of fossil fuel emissions billowing into the skies.
So where are all those emissions coming from? For one thing, utilities are still generating roughly the same amount of electricity — even if more of it’s going to houses instead of workplaces. Electricity and heating combined account for over 40 percent of global emissions. Many people around the world rely on wood, coal, and natural gas to keep their homes warm and cook their food — and in most places, electricity isn’t so green either.
Even with a bigger proportion of the world working from home, people still need the grid to keep the lights on and connect to the internet. “There’s a shift from offices to homes, but the power hasn’t been turned off, and that power is still being generated largely by fossil fuels,” Schmidt said. In the United States, 60 percent of electricity generation still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. (There is evidence, however, that the lockdown is shifting when people use electricity, which has some consequences for renewables.)
Manufacturing, construction, and other types of industry account for approximately 20 percent of CO2 emissions. Certain industrial processes like steel production and aluminum smelting use huge amounts of fossil fuels — and so far, Schmidt says, that type of production has mostly continued despite the pandemic.
The reality is that emissions need to be cut by 7.6 percent every year to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold associated with the most dangerous climate threats — according to an analysis by the United Nations Environment Program. Even if the global lockdown and economic slump reduce emissions by 7.6 percent this year, emissions would have to fall even more the year after that. And the year after that. And so on.
In the middle of the pandemic, it’s become common to point to clear skies in Los Angeles and the cleaner waters of Venice as evidence that people can make a difference on climate change. “The newly iconic photos of a crystal-clear Los Angeles skyline without its usual shroud of smog are unwanted but compelling evidence of what can happen when individuals stop driving vehicles that pollute the air,” wrote Michael Grunwald in POLITICO magazine.
But these arguments conflate air and water pollution — crucial environmental issues in their own right! — with CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is invisible, and power plants and oil refineries are still pumping it into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, natural gas companies and livestock farming (think cow burps) keep releasing methane.
“I think people should bike instead of driving, and they should take the train instead of flying,” said Schmidt. “But those are small, compared to the really big structural things that haven’t changed.”
It’s worth remembering that a dip in carbon emissions won’t lead to any changes in the Earth’s warming trend. Some scientists compare carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to water flowing into a leaky bathtub. The lockdown has turned the tap down, not off. Until we cut emissions to net-zero — so that emissions flowing into the atmosphere are equivalent to those flowing out — the Earth will continue warming.
To first order, think of CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere as the water in a bathtub & CO₂ emissions as the tap. The lockdowns mean the tap has been turned down slightly, so CO₂ is still streaming into the bathtub (& some leaks out the bottom)https://t.co/2MNQn6JRCI
That helps explain why 2020 is already on track to be the warmest ever recorded, beating out 2016. In a sad irony, the decrease in air pollution may make it even hotter. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, explained that many polluting particles have a “masking” effect on global warming, reflecting the sun’s rays, canceling out some of the warming from greenhouse gas emissions. With that shield of pollution gone, Ramanathan said, “We could see an increase in warming.”
Appreciate the bluer skies and fresher air, while you can. But the emissions drop from the pandemic should be a warning, not a cause for celebration: a sign of how much further there is to go.
Update: As of April 30, the International Energy Agency estimates that carbon emissions will fall by 8 percent this year. The IEA drew on more data than an earlier CarbonBrief analysis which estimated a drop of 5.5 percent.
Eye-opening, powerful words are now used to describe plummeting CO2 emissions in 2020.
It “would be the largest decrease in emissions ever recorded,” the International Energy Agency Thursday. Spurred by an unprecedented energy shock, carbon emissions would take “a far bigger drop than at any point during the Great Depression or at the end of World War II, when much of Europe lay in ruins,” the New York Times.
This is all likely true. We’re headed for some major emission declines. But, critically, the true number global warming cares about — the amount of carbon dioxide saturating the atmosphere — will barely be impacted by an unprecedented drop in carbon emissions this year, a drop the International Energy Agency estimates at nearly eight percent (compared with historic 2019 levels).
That’s because atmospheric CO2 levels are like a massive bank account that’s been accruing more and more carbon every year for well over a century (this bank account is now at its highest levels in at least 800,000 years, but more likely millions of years). This year’s carbon emissions, however, are just a deposit. This 2020 deposit may be smaller than in 2019, but it’ll still add to the atmospheric CO2 bank account.
“It will still be a big increase over last year,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center, referencing atmospheric CO2 levels. “It’s not fundamentally changing the trajectory of where the world is headed,” he added.
The world is headed for significantly more warming this century, unless CO2 emissions are radically slashed, year after year. With current, relatively weak global climate policies, Earth is , or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures by the century’s end.
Yet a sizable drop in emissions this year, stoked not by robust climate policies but a , won’t tame Earth’s warming — even if emissions drop by a whopping eight percent in 2020.
“We’re still emitting 92 percent of a very, very large number,” said Kristopher Karnauskas, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This means, by year’s end, we’ll be puffing about the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as we were in 2010. Yes, we’ll still be adding over 30 gigatonnes — or 30 billion metric tons — of CO2 to the atmosphere this year.
Global CO2 emissions are set to fall almost 8% in 2020.
This would be the largest decrease in emissions ever recorded, and almost twice as large as all previous declines since the end of the Second World War combined.
These still large 2020 emissions certainly won’t lower atmospheric CO2 levels, but could slightly slow the continued increase in Earth’s burgeoning CO2 bank account. “Doing it one year isn’t going to have a significant effect on CO2 levels,” said Karnauskas.
To illustrate, before the pandemic and ensuing economic shock, Earth’s average atmospheric CO2 concentration was around 414.2 parts per million, or ppm, this year. With a five percent drop in emissions, this would , explained Hausfather. And with an eight percent emissions reduction, it would drop slightly more to around 413.9 ppm. Importantly, this is still much higher than average CO2 concentrations last year, .
So, yes, carbon emissions will likely fall, but barely. Yet, throwing the global economy into disarray to achieve these cuts isn’t reasonable. It’s destructive and inhumane.
“What this really tells us is that economic shocks are not a great example of how to decarbonize because they’re not sustainable,” said Hausfather.
“We need systematic change.”
With huge swathes of society shut down — restaurants, bars, national parks, and many workplaces — it seems like there should be an even larger projected drop in CO2 emission this year, not just some eight percent. Much of society, however, is still consuming lots of energy.
“It’s only transportation that has changed radically,” explained Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and director of the , which researches carbon emissions. “Outside of transportation, emissions are not changing all that much,” he said. For example, we’re still using lots of electricity at home.
However much emissions ultimately drop this year — whether five percent, eight percent, or more — there will be a big rebound in emissions once people start driving and traveling again. After every economic shock of the past century there’s been a rebound, most recently in 2010 after the Great Recession, when emissions rose by five percent, Jackson said.
Unfortunately, the U.S. transportation sector largely runs on fossil fuels, which means big carbon emissions — in fact, the transportation sector is the leading contributor of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Electric vehicles only make up about 1.8 percent of cars purchased in the U.S. today. And, globally, lower-emission fuels from airliners (“biofuels”) made up less than one-tenth of one percent of aviation fuels burned in 2018.
“If we just hop back in our cars, this will be a one-year blip on the emissions record and it won’t amount to much in five or 10 years,” said Jackson. “It won’t matter.”
“We need systematic change” to really drive down emissions, he said.
In the realm of transportation, this means government support of a so people are encouraged to buy electric cars — like the bill proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Congressman Andy Levin for powerful, fast-charging stations.
It also means ramping up renewable energies so they become the dominant means of producing electricity. In 2018, renewables accounted for around in the U.S. “We need to deploy clean energy technologies at a very large scale,” said Hausfather. (Renewables are expected to during the pandemic, in large part because they’re cheaper than coal.)
To curb Earth’s warming at levels that would avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the United Nations says global emissions need to drop by — without, of course, introducing sharp economic shocks. But if society waits longer to cut emissions in a meaningful, sustainable way, curbing future warming will require even more drastic measures. It’s similar, then, to , which has mired the U.S. in economic despair, , historic shutdowns, and .
“The earlier you act, the less severe of actions you have to take,” said Karnauskas.
About 4 billion people around the world are under lockdown to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Given that huge number, the drop in global greenhouse gases seems almost paltry by comparison.
Forecasters expect emissions to fall more than 5% in 2020, the greatest annual reduction on record. But it’s still short of the 7.6% decline that scientists say is needed over the next decade to stop global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“If you assume a proportional decline in [gross domestic product] and emissions, what feels like an economical catastrophe is a fairly modest reduction in emissions compared to where we need to go,” said Trevor Houser, who leads climate and energy research at the Rhodium Group, a research firm.
So why aren’t forecasts projecting a bigger drop in CO2 during one of the worst economic catastrophes in a lifetime?
The answers are rooted in how emissions forecasts are developed, the way our energy system is structured and how the pandemic is causing an economic free fall that differs from previous recessions.
Here’s a look at why emissions aren’t falling faster during the global lockdown.
IF QUARANTINE MEASURES CONTINUE THROUGH THE YEAR, CARBON DIOXIDE REDUCTIONS COULD EXCEED FORECASTS
Carbon Brief analyzed the emissions impact of China’s shutdown earlier this year. It concluded that emissions dropped 25% over a four-week period beginning Feb. 3. Emissions began to rebound as normal life in China showed signs of resuming.
In the United States, emissions were likely 15%-20% lower between March 15 and April 14 compared with the same period last year, according to a recent report by Rhodium.
So why aren’t those deeper reductions reflected in the annual projections?
Most forecasters assume the economy will rebound in the second half of the year, pushing emissions higher. The International Monetary Fund anticipates a 3% contraction in the global economy and a reduction in U.S. GDP of 6%. Even the IMF, which sees a worldwide contraction for the year, is projecting a rebound in the second half of 2020.
That may be optimistic.
It seems increasingly likely that lockdowns could persist in some parts of the world through 2020. Still, reductions in emissions that are anywhere close to those that occurred in March and April would be staggering.
Consider this. The Global Carbon Project estimates that global emissions increased on average 0.9% between 2010 and 2018. The U.S. has averaged reductions of 0.9% since 2005 and recorded a 2.1% decline in 2019.
So even in a scenario where emissions fell 25%, three-quarters of global CO2 output would continue during a yearlong lockdown.
UNLIKE PAST RECESSIONS, TRANSPORTATION IS DRIVING THE DECLINE IN EMISSIONS
Normally in a recession, you’d expect CO2 reductions to be associated with declines in manufacturing and shipping, said Houser of Rhodium. Almost the opposite has happened this year.
Shipping remains constant, and manufacturing has been slow to shut down. As Carbon Brief noted, Beijing even recorded a severe smog day during China’s lockdown. Many steel and coal plants continued to run throughout the shutdown, though often at reduced levels.
Instead, record declines in surface transportation are driving the world’s emission reductions. Rystad Energy, a Norwegian oil consultancy, estimates that traffic levels fell on every populated continent.
Traffic is down 54% in the United Kingdom, 36% in the United States and 19% in China.
Air travel, meanwhile, was down 40% in the 12 weeks since China reported its first 500 cases of COVID-19. In Europe, nine out of every 10 flights have been grounded.
The result has been a historic collapse in oil demand.
The global appetite for jet fuel will likely fall 65% in April and May compared with last year. In the U.S., gasoline demand for the four weeks ending April 17 fell 41% compared with the same time last year, according to Department of Energy statistics.
The International Energy Agency estimates that global gasoline demand will fall by 11 million barrels a day in April, the largest monthly decline on record, and another 10 million barrels a day in May.
Call it the crude disappearing act of 2020.
And yet the global economy is still consuming lots of oil.
Lost amid the hubbub around oil is this: IEA still expects the world to consume 76.1 million barrels a day in the second quarter of this year.
Who’s consuming all of that crude? For starters, gasoline and jet fuel demand is down dramatically but hasn’t disappeared. U.S. refiners sent an average of 5.5 million barrels of gasoline to the market over the last four weeks.
Diesel demand is down, but its losses have been limited thanks to the strength of freight and shipping. IEA expects diesel demand in 2020 to be down 7% compared with the previous year.
Then there are petrochemicals, which have been unevenly impacted by the crisis. Plastics used in auto manufacturing are down, but plastics used for food packaging are up.
Overall, IEA thinks demand for plastic feedstocks like ethane and naphtha will decline on the year, but not to the same degree as gasoline or diesel.
The numbers illustrate just how intertwined oil is with the global economy. Cars and planes can be parked en masse, and yet widespread oil consumption continues.
“The crisis shows how challenging decarbonizing the economy purely through behavioral adjustment would be,” Houser said, noting that individual decisions about not driving or flying deliver only limited emissions reductions.
“What we need are technological solutions that allow our economy to operate at 100% with 5%-8% annual reductions going forward,” he said.
TRANSPORTATION IS A BIG PIECE OF THE EMISSIONS PUZZLE. BUT IT’S ONLY ONE PIECE
The Global Carbon Project estimated that emissions in 2019 rose 0.6%, reaching a total of 36.8 gigatons. Transportation accounted for about 20% of those total emissions, with road transportation accounting for about half of that portion.
“It’s a big number, but 80% is everything else,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor who chairs the GCP.
Of the pandemic, he added: “Only transportation has fallen off a cliff. Electricity has fallen a little bit, natural gas has too.”
Indeed, emissions from coal use in China alone (7.3 gigatons) exceed global transportation emissions, excluding international air travel and shipping. Coal generation in China appears to have fallen during February, but it began to rebound in March, according to Carbon Brief.
Coal is being squeezed by the pandemic, but it remains crucial to electricity generation around the world.
Coal accounts for 40% of global CO2 emissions, more than any other fuel. Much like oil, coal generation is suffering during the pandemic. But also like oil, it remains a central cog in economic production worldwide.
Coal amounted to 15% of American power generation over the last month, according to Rhodium, compared with 22% at the same time last year. European coal demand is expected to fall by almost 13%, according to the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services.
In India, daily figures from the national grid operator show coal generation hovering near 1.9 gigawatt-hours this week compared with 2.3 GWh on March 24, the day the country went into lockdown. Coal nevertheless accounted for roughly two-thirds of power generation Monday through Wednesday.
India’s coal emissions were 1.7 gigatons in 2019, according to the GCP, compared with coal emissions of 1.1 gigatons and 0.8 gigaton in the U.S. and Europe, respectively.
Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, said the pandemic underscores the need to make clean energy affordable for developing parts of the world.
“There is just a huge amount of technology needed to drive the decarbonization that the world wants,” he said. “What really happens with climate change really comes down to China and India, and there is not much appetite to sacrifice economic growth for emission reduction.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.