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Experts urge further climate action as lockdown triggers ‘extreme’ emissions drop

The changes were largest in China, where the COVID-19 confinement started, then the US and Europe.

But while these daily and monthly decreases in carbon emissions were “extreme and probably unseen before”, the authors point out the annual decrease is likely to be much lower.

The emissions outlook for the rest of 2020 will depend on the duration of pandemic confinement and the degree to which life returns to normal.

But even if some restrictions remain in place until the end of the year, the report authors estimate it will lead to a maximum decrease of carbon emissions in 2020 of only 4.2-7.5 per cent.

These figures are comparable with the rates of decrease needed year on year over the next few decades to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees of warming.

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According to the most recent UN emissions gap report, a reduction of 7.6 per cent is needed year on year to reach that target.

“What has been really shocking is that although we were shutting down the whole economy, we were still emitting about 92 per cent of the emissions we emitted before COVID,” said Dr Pep Canadell, a co-author of the research paper and senior research scientist at the CSIRO.

“It shows the fossil energy system is so ingrained into the fabric of our society and economy that even when we shut down a huge part of it we still emit large amounts of carbon.”

The changes are likely to be temporary because they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems, the authors write.

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“These numbers put into perspective … the size of the challenge we have to limit climate change in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Despite the significance of carbon emissions, there are few systems to monitor global emissions in real time, and usually this data is released months or even years later.

The study authors gathered all the available data – from aviation to mobile phone statistics – to determine the extent that different coronavirus confinement policies affected emissions.

There are opportunities to set structural changes in motion by ensuring economic stimuli is aligned with low-carbon initiatives, they say.

These could include changes to surface transportation, says Dr Canadell. Surface transport accounted for nearly half the decrease in emissions during confinement, and active travel (walking, cycling and using e-bicycles) have social distancing advantages.

“Now, more than ever before, we need to be careful that anything we have to do with energy is well aligned with the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement,” he said.

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