Greenhouse Gas Emissions Set for Record Decline Due to Coronavirus Lockdowns
The Paris-based agency predicted a drop of eight percent, almost six times the last record, set in 2009 and triggered by the global financial crisis. It is also twice as steep as all emissions declines since World War II combined. However, the agency cautioned that this decline on its own is not a solution to the climate crisis.
"Resulting from premature deaths and economic trauma around the world, the historic decline in global emissions is absolutely nothing to cheer," IEA Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol said in a press release. "And if the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is anything to go by, we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound in emissions as economic conditions improve."
Global CO2 emissions are set to fall nearly 8% this year to their lowest level since 2010, the largest drop in hist… https://t.co/LvjMgj6nvU— Fatih Birol (@Fatih Birol)1588224730.0
Birol did note, however, that a rebound in emissions is not inevitable, as he added his voice to the growing global call for a green recovery process.
"[G]overnments can learn from [the post-2008] experience by putting clean energy technologies – renewables, efficiency, batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture – at the heart of their plans for economic recovery," he said. "Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future."
The IEA's Global Energy Review is based on more than 100 days of data so far this year. It predicts that global energy demand will fall by six percent in 2020, the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India and seven times the 2008 decline.
The #Covid19 pandemic is the biggest shock to the global energy system in over 70 years. Global energy demand is s… https://t.co/qoULFrehAt— Fatih Birol (@Fatih Birol)1588224727.0
All major fossil fuels have taken a beating so far and are expected to decline further.
- Coal demand fell by almost eight percent in the first quarter of 2020 and could fall eight percent for the whole year.
- Oil declined by almost five percent in the first quarter and could fall by nine percent for the year.
- Natural gas declined by two percent so far and is expected to fall by five percent for the year, The Guardian reported. While gas has been less impacted than oil and coal, that would still be its steepest decline since it became a widely-used energy source in the mid-20th century.
Only renewable energy sources saw growth, and are expected to continue to grow throughout the year. This is because wind turbines and solar panels cost little to operate, so when electricity demand declines, they get priority on the grid, The New York Times explained.
This means low carbon energy sources are expected to continue moving in the direction that began in 2019, when they overtook coal as the world's leading source of electricity for the first time in 50 years. By the end of 2020, they should account for 40 percent of the world's electricity.
"This is a historic shock to the entire energy world. Amid today's unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use," Birol said. "It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before."
The IEA estimates are based on certain assumptions, namely that lockdown measures are loosened in the coming months and the economy begins to recover.
"Some countries may delay the lifting of the lockdown, or a second wave of coronavirus could render our current expectations on the optimistic side," Birol told Reuters.
The question for climate advocates is whether the decline in emissions can be sustained. This is a tall order. The United Nations has estimated that emissions need to decline by around eight percent per year through 2030 in order to keep temperatures "well below" two degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, The New York Times reported.
"I hope the striking improvements in air quality we've seen remind us what things could be like if we shifted to green power and electric vehicles," Stanford University earth scientist Rob Jackson told The New York Times.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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