The industrial slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has not curbed record levels of greenhouse gases which are trapping heat in the atmosphere, increasing temperatures and driving more extreme weather, ice melt, sea-level rise and ocean acidification, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
COVID-19 restrictions has cut emissions of many pollutants and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. But any impact on CO2 concentrations – the result of cumulative past and current emissions is in fact no bigger than the normal year to year fluctuations in the carbon cycle and the high natural variability in carbon sinks like vegetation.
The WMO’s annual greenhouse gas bulletin looked primarily at the amount of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere as of 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, but did include insight from data gathered already in 2020.
Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to fall in 2020 because of the COVID-19 lockdown. But CO2 concentrations topped 410 pmm in 2019, and continue to rise – @WMO https://t.co/gu7PECOmaD #ClimateDialogues pic.twitter.com/4zJVczej9k
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) November 23, 2020
In 2019, the global average for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere breached the threshold of 410 parts per million (ppm), according to the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. Before the Industrial Revolution, the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was around 278ppm, with fossil fuel burning, cement production and deforestation to blame as primary drivers for a 148 per cent spike.
Since 1990, there has been a 45% increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on the climate – by long-lived greenhouse gases, with CO2 accounting for four fifths of this. The rise has continued in 2020.
“Carbon dioxide 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 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now. But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants,” said WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas.
“We breached the global threshold of 400 parts per million 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,” said Prof Taalas.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not a solution for climate change. However, it does provide us with a platform for more sustained and ambitious climate action to reduce emissions to net zero through a complete transformation of our industrial, energy and transport systems. The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible and would affect our everyday life only marginally. It is to be welcomed that a growing number of countries and companies have committed themselves to carbon neutrality,” he said. “There is no time to lose.”
A new UNFCCC report shows that while most developed countries expect to meet their 2020 emission reduction targets, stronger #ClimateAction and policies are needed to effectively change the trajectory of rising greenhouse gas emissions: https://t.co/bJIQZLEjOC #ClimateDialogues pic.twitter.com/61y5Dx42Yx
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) November 23, 2020
The Global Carbon Project estimated that during the most intense period of the shutdown, daily CO2 emissions may have been reduced by up to 17% globally due to the confinement of the population. As the duration and severity of confinement measures remain unclear, the prediction of the total annual emission reduction over 2020 is very uncertain.
The annual report released by the Geneva-based agency, preliminary estimates for this year indicate that as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, global annual emissions of CO2 fell by between 4.2 per cent and 7.5 per cent. At the global scale, an emissions reduction this scale will not cause atmospheric CO2 to go down. CO2 will continue to go up, though at a slightly reduced pace (0.08-0.23 ppm per year lower). This falls well within the 1 ppm natural inter-annual variability. This means that on the short-term the impact of the COVID-19 confinements cannot be distinguished from natural variability, according to the Bulletin.
The second-most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is methane, emitted in part from cattle and fermentation from rice paddies, which is responsible for about 16 percent of warming.
In 2019, methane levels were at 260 percent of pre-industrial levels, at 1,877 parts per billion (ppb), with the rise from 2018 slightly lower than the previous annual increase, but still higher than the 10-year average, WMO said.
Concentrations of nitrous oxide, the third major greenhouse which is gas caused largely by agricultural fertilisers, meanwhile stood at 332 ppb last year, or 123 percent over pre-industrial levels.
Its rise from 2018 to 2019 was also lower than the observed from 2017 to 2018, but on par with the average annual growth rate for the past decade.