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More bad news for climate change: Pandemic dip in carbon emissions was temporary, report says – USA TODAY


  • Last year, the coronavirus lockdowns had an “extreme” effect on carbon emissions.
  • The new carbon estimates arrive in the midst of the major climate summit COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
  • “Global warming stops when emissions get to around zero.”

Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that’s most responsible for global warming, have returned to near pre-pandemic levels, scientists announced.

This year saw a 4.9% increase in emissions over 2020, similar to the rebound that followed the 2008 global financial crisis, researchers said in a report published Wednesday. More than 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere in the past year, the report estimates.

Carbon dioxide – emitted from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and and coal – stays in the atmosphere about a century before dissipating.

“We expected this rebound when the world’s economy returned close to normal,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, an academic group that produces the annual carbon emission estimates. “Park your car for a year and it’s the same polluting vehicle when you start it again. Similarly, when economic activity returns, so do emissions.”

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Last year, the coronavirus lockdowns had an “extreme” effect on carbon emissions, leading to a 17% drop globally during peak confinement measures by early April 2020 – levels that hadn’t been seen since 2006.

Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann, who was not involved in the report, told USA TODAY he was not surprised that emissions have rebounded to such a degree. “It would have been crazy to expect anything else. What the carbon emissions numbers show is that emissions (correcting for the short-term response to COVID-19) have basically flattened now. That’s the good news.

“The bad news is that’s not enough. We need to start bringing them down. That’s what COP26 is all about.”

Aerial view of a coal-fired factory in Chengde, China, in 2018. Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide have returned close to pre-pandemic levels, according to new research. Surging consumption of coal and natural gas for power plants and industry is driving the rebound, especially in China.

The new carbon estimates arrive in the midst of the major climate summit COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, where countries that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement are discussing efforts to achieve the accord’s goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and preferably below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“Despite the tragedy of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the strength and nature of the rebound in fossil CO2 emissions shows the world has done little to focus on a green recovery,” said Glen Peters, a research director at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Norway, who helped prepare the report. 

Carbon dioxide emissions are on track to rise in every country and region in the world this year compared with 2020. “We thought global coal use had peaked in 2014, but we’re perilously close to that value again this year,” Jackson said in a statement from Stanford University.

For example, India’s carbon emissions are projected to reach 2.7 billion tons, up 3% from 2019 and 12.6% from 2020. As in the U.S., emissions in Europe are tracking slightly below 2019 levels, at 2.8 billion tons.

The rest of the world in aggregate, which includes global international transport, is projected to produce 14.7 billion tons of CO2 this year, down slightly from 2019 because of pandemic-related reductions in shipping and aviation.

China, the world’s largest emitter for the past 15 years, was unusual in having increased emissions even during the pandemic. The nation’s carbon pollution is expected to reach 11.1 billion tons this year, up 6% from 2019 and 4% from 2020 – driven in part by COVID-19 recovery incentives that have boosted industrial production relying heavily on coal.

“The rapid rebound in emissions as economies recover from the pandemic reinforces the need for immediate global action on climate change,” said Professor Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, who led the report.

Peters summed it up plainly: “Global warming stops when emissions get to around zero.” 

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