Emissions Show ‘Surprisingly Rapid’ Rebound as Pandemic Lockdowns Ease
Global greenhouse gas emissions are going through a “surprisingly rapid” rebound as pandemic restrictions begin to lift, according to an update to the Global Carbon Project research that previously tracked a 25% reduction in output at the height of the lockdown.
“Emissions fell by a quarter when the lockdowns were at their peak, and in early April global daily carbon dioxide emissions were still down by 17% compared with the average figure for 2019,” The Guardian recalls, citing research published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Now, daily carbon emissions are still down on 2019 levels, but by only 5% on average globally.”
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“Things have happened very fast,” said lead author Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change at the UK’s University of East Anglia. “Very few countries still have stringent confinement. We expected emissions to come back, but that they have done so rapidly is the biggest surprise.”
But not that much of a surprise after Le Quéré’s co-author, Stanford University climate scientist Rob Jackson, warned the reductions will just be a “blip” without deeper change in the structural features of the economy that cause greenhouse gas emissions.
As of June 11, the year’s emissions were 8.6% below the same period for 2019, The Guardian says, and emissions for this year are still expected to fall 4.0 to 7.0% short of last. But that’s “not enough to make a significant contribution to the cuts in emissions needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement on climate change, which will require structural changes to transport systems and how energy is generated,” the UK-based paper notes.
Le Quéré said most of the shift in both directions came from vehicle use. “Road transport is the most responsive sector,” she told The Guardian. “Emissions from transport were always going to go back up, but government responses [to shift driving habits] have not been as fast as I would have liked. It would be terrible if we carry on going back to normal. It would be a disaster.”
But Mike Childs, head of science at Friends of the Earth UK, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson set up exactly that kind of dynamic by specifically urging citizens to drive to work. “By saying people should jump back into cars, the government are contributing to increased pollution,” he said. “Road use was the big problem, and cycling and walking provision has always been part of the solution—just more so now, as we emerge.”
There’s growing concern that post-lockdown emissions will even exceed the previous total as transit riders shift to private cars. “What we may now see are emissions that exceed pre-pandemic levels, if for instance more people start using private instead of public transport due to health concerns,” said Bob Ward, a policy director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. “Any economic recovery packages designed to help economies fully rebound need to focus on zero-carbon, climate-resilient investments that address unemployment, but avoid locking us into a new high-carbon future.”
Le Quéré agreed that governments have a crucial role to play, noting that emissions could rise well above pre-pandemic thresholds “if the government incentives for boosting the economy are blind to climate change. Building roads, for example, would be very detrimental.” But policy-makers and politicians have other options—like removing barriers to electric vehicle adoption, encouraging building energy retrofits, planting trees, and restoring nature.
“The window of opportunity will not be closed until the end of the year,” she said. “But after that it will be closed.”