Lockdown 'flash crash' in emissions won't curb warming - but green recovery can

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 August 2020 15:00 GMT

A green traffic light for bicycles is seen after the government announced a new plan on walking and cycling projects, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain, July 28, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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Decisions on how to build back economies after the pandemic will make or break global climate change goals, researchers say

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Aug 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - If governments choose strong green policies and investments to revive economies after the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, an internationally agreed aim, researchers said on Friday.

But if the world sticks to business as usual - even if some lockdown measures stay in place to the end of 2021 - global temperatures would only be roughly 0.01C lower than expected by 2030, found the study published in Nature Climate Change.

Large parts of the world's economy ground to a halt earlier this year as travel and other restrictions were imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, causing carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other emissions to drop 10-30% globally.

But that fall in planet-warming emissions was only temporary, noted study co-author Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia.

"It will do nothing to slow down climate change, but the government responses could be a turning point if they focus on a green recovery, helping to avoid severe impacts from climate change," she said in a statement on the findings.

The study, led by the University of Leeds, estimated that including climate-friendly measures in economic recovery plans and in stimulus spending could prevent more than half of the warming expected by 2050 under today's policies.

"The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3C of additional warming by mid-century," said study lead author Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds.

"This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change."

Global average temperatures have already increased by about 1.1C since pre-industrial times.

The strong green stimulus scenario used in the study involved spending 1.2% more of gross domestic product per year than now on low-carbon energy and efficiency measures over the next decade, and 0.4% less on fossil fuels, causing greenhouse gas emissions to fall by just over 50% by 2030.

The study also highlighted opportunities to reduce traffic pollution by encouraging low-emissions vehicles, public transport and cycle lanes, Forster added.

"The better air quality will immediately have important health effects - and it will immediately start cooling the climate," he said.

So far in their coronavirus recovery packages, G20 nations have pledged $169 billion to support carbon-heavy fossil fuel industries, according to the Energy Policy Tracker, compiled by a group of research organisations.

That represents 47% of all public money committed to the energy sector in coronavirus recovery packages, compared with 39% for clean energy, according to the tracker.

Joeri Rogelj, a study co-author from the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, said the "flash crash" in emissions due to lockdown would have no measurable impact on global temperatures by 2030.

But decisions made this year about how to recover from the coronavirus crisis could make or break climate change goals.

"Out of this tragedy comes an opportunity - but unless it is seized, a more polluting next decade is not excluded," he said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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