Pollution and emissions are down, but we will squander these gains if governments fail to push ahead with decisive change
The current crisis has revealed a sobering truth: the global economic shutdown, which has been achieved at a devastating social cost, has barely dented our carbon emissions. The latest analysis, by the International Energy Agency (IEA), expects this year’s annual emissions to be down by just 6-8%. Such a small drop in emissions would have no measurable effect on the world’s carbon concentration, or its warming potential. Indeed, 2020 is currently on track to be the hottest year ever recorded.
“You’d need about a 10% drop to have a noticeable effect on the rising CO2 concentrations, but even then concentrations would still be rising,” says Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Met Office. “The rate of rise of CO2 varies from year to year anyway, as the natural carbon sinks get stronger and weaker because of natural processes, like El Niño.” During an El Niño event, tropical forests don’t take up as much carbon, so the atmospheric CO2 rises a bit faster. And in La Niña, the opposite occurs. “That effect is probably more important than the small drop in emissions we’re seeing now.”
Individual action – driving your car less, attending a meeting via Zoom, not taking a flight – is not going to be enough
Government is not there just to fix the same system, but to shape the kind of economy and society we want to live in