Global carbon emissions drop by 7%

Wednesday, March 3, 2021 - 4:33pm

https://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/dovetail.prxu.org/300/d0b084c6-509b-4973-896a-13c8eef3e94e/2021_0303_06.mp3

Global carbon emissions dropped by 7% in 2020 compared to 2019, due to changed behavior and government regulations because of the coronavirus pandemic. That's the biggest drop ever recorded. This analysis was published today in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change. Host Marco Werman talks with Corinne Le Quéré, with the University of East Anglia in the UK, and is the lead author of the carbon emissions study.

TRANSCRIPT:

Marco Werman:
As we think about the more than 2.5 million deaths from COVID, the tragedy of the pandemic is undeniable. In the past year, we've also seen some upsides. More time with family, less time commuting. I know a lot of people who are refocusing on what really matters in life. When the world essentially shut down last year, many environmentalists thought we'd see huge reductions in carbon emissions that drive climate change. Fewer cars, trucks and planes moving around mean fewer greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere. Now we have some numbers to back that up. According to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, annual carbon emissions dropped 7% in 2020. To put this into context, we're joined by Corinne Le Quéré. She's a lead author of the study and is with the University of East Anglia in the UK. What drove this drop, Corinne — transport, manufacturing shutdowns? Are you able to parse out how each contributed?

Corinne Le Quéré:
Yeah, mostly a change in road transport. So the fact that people stayed home and didn't use the car around, that was the biggest drop. And then there was a drop in emissions across the economy, the industry, less power production, less consumption in general. But the road transport was really the biggest part.

Marco Werman:
It is kind of striking that in a year when it feels like everything came to an abrupt standstill, the emissions drop is only 7%. What is your reaction to that figure? Where you expecting it to be a bigger drop?

Corinne Le Quéré:
I think that's a pretty sizable drop, actually, because when we were on the peak of the lockdown in April, then the drop went almost to 20% compared to the same day last year. But the thing is that nothing has changed around us. So as soon as the lockdown eases, then we go back to what we did before and then the emissions come back up. So it's not really surprising that overall in a year, then the drop is not that large. And it doesn't mean that we're still emitting a lot of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Marco Werman:
So you're not surprised that it didn't drop more? What happens then when we do come out of the pandemic? How can this reduction be sustained or even made to be greater?

Corinne Le Quéré:
Yeah, I mean, there's going to be a rebound for sure this year. Now, whether the emissions will already go back to where they were before the pandemic is a little unclear if this will happen straight away or in a few years. But it's pretty sure that unless governments ramp up their actions on climate change and particularly there's an opportunity now that there's going to be all these investments. If you can put these investments to support electric cars, deploying renewable energy, then that could lead to sustained decreases. Good for health year on year.

Marco Werman:
So, Corinne, what is your takeaway after kind of seeing those numbers? Was 2020 a victory for the planet in terms of battling climate change and limiting greenhouse gas emissions?

Corinne Le Quéré:
Yeah, I mean, we can call it a victory because of the COVID impact, but I think it just takes us up to the size of the action that we need to put in place to tackle climate change. I think we had progress before the COVID-19 crisis. We had this pandemic. Now we're going to reorganize, rebuild, invest in the new economy of tomorrow. And if we can align these priorities, then we could really make a big difference in tackling climate change. But I fear that this hasn't been really realize or sunk in what we need to do to really make the stimulus package consistent with climate actions.

Marco Werman:
Yeah, the what to do part, the action — how would you best describe that practically?

Corinne Le Quéré:
Well, everything that we invest in, we have to think about investing in infrastructure that gets us out of fossil fuels. So moving old, the car fleet to electric car fleet, deploying renewable energy, isolating the home so that we don't waste so much energy for heating. That kind of thing, that they are needed, they create jobs, they are good for the environment and most of them also have benefits for health. So all this stimulus package plans that the countries around the world are putting together should really be as clean as possible and trying to make these investments that we need at the right place.

Marco Werman:
Corinne Le Quéré with the University of East Anglia in the UK and the lead author of a new study on carbon emissions in the journal Nature Climate Change. Catherine, thank you very much.

Corinne Le Quéré:
Thank you.