Emissions declines will set records this year. But it’s not good news

  • >>Brad Plumer, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-04-30 11:38:02 BdST

Emissions from a power plant chimney rise over Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia January 13, 2017. REUTERS/B Rentsendorj

Global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to plunge nearly 8% this year, the largest drop ever recorded, as worldwide lockdowns to fight the coronavirus have triggered an “unprecedented” decline in the use of fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency said in a new report Thursday.

But experts cautioned that the drop should not be seen as good news for efforts to tackle climate change. When the pandemic subsides and nations take steps to restart their economies, emissions could easily soar again unless governments make concerted efforts to shift to cleaner energy as part of their recovery efforts.

“This historic decline in emissions is happening for all the wrong reasons,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director. “People are dying and countries are suffering enormous economic trauma right now. The only way to sustainably reduce emissions is not through painful lockdowns but by putting the right energy and climate policies in place.”

More than 4 billion people are living in countries that have imposed partial or more extensive shutdowns on economic activity to slow the spread of the virus. By mid-April, the report found, weekly emissions in many of those countries were 17% to 25% lower than they were in 2019, as factories idled, employees stopped driving to work and airlines grounded their flights.

The agency expects many governments to start relaxing those restrictions later in the year, as China has already done and as some states are starting to do in the United States. Even so, the report said, global carbon dioxide emissions were projected to fall by roughly 2.6 billion tons this year, an 8% drop from 2019.

That would put global emissions back at levels last seen in 2010, wiping out an entire decade of growth in the use of fossil fuels worldwide. The projected annual drop in emissions would be six times the size of the decline seen after the global financial crisis in 2009 and a far bigger drop than at any point during the Great Depression or at the end of World War II, when much of Europe lay in ruins.

Still, there are many uncertainties around the early estimates.

If countries remain locked down for longer than expected, or if businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic, the drop in emissions could be larger. Conversely, if nations like China try to boost their ailing economies by weakening environmental rules or subsidising polluting industries like coal or steel, emissions could rebound even faster than projected.

That’s what happened after the financial crisis: By 2010, global emissions had surged back higher than before.

“One of the big question marks now is whether countries decide to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus packages,” Birol said.

This week, leaders from Germany, Britain, Japan and elsewhere held a video conference urging nations to invest in technology to reduce emissions, such as solar power or electric vehicles, as they chart their economic recovery efforts. “There will be a difficult debate about the allocation of funds,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. “But it is important that recovery programs always keep an eye on the climate.”

For now, the current crisis has dramatically reshaped the global energy landscape.

The world’s use of oil fell nearly 5% in the first quarter of this year, the report said. By March, global road transport was down nearly 50%, and air traffic was down 60%, compared to 2019. That slump in fuel demand has caused crude prices to crash worldwide, straining the budgets of major oil producers like Saudi Arabia and pushing drilling companies in places like Texas to the brink of bankruptcy.

The world’s use of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, fell nearly 8% in the first quarter of the year. Much of that was triggered by early coronavirus shutdowns in China, the world’s biggest coal user. But even though Chinese coal plants are firing back up, the global coal industry faces a continued threat from cheaper and cleaner energy sources like natural gas and renewables.

By contrast, wind and solar power have seen a slight uptick in demand during the pandemic.

One big reason for that: Many countries are using significantly less electricity as office buildings, restaurants and movie theatres close. But because existing wind turbines and solar panels cost little to operate, they tend to get priority on electric grids, which means they are still operating closer to full capacity, while fossil-fuel plants are allowed to run less frequently.

Despite the record drop in emissions, scientists cautioned that the world faces an enormous task in getting global warming under control.

The United Nations has said that global emissions would have to fall nearly 8% every single year between now and 2030 if countries hoped to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which world leaders have deemed necessary for avoiding catastrophic social, economic and environmental damage from climate change.

“A lockdown is just a one-off event; it can’t get you all the way there,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway.

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