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COVID-19 lockdowns will have a negligible effect on climate change, study finds

Decisions on how to build back economies after the coronavirus pandemic will impact the global warming trajectory, according to an international team of researchers.

Climate Change and Environment

While the COVID-19 restrictions on travel and work did lead to a sudden reduction of both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollutants, this brief spell will have little impact on the wider climate crisis, according to a new study. However, a post-lockdown economic recovery plan that incorporates and emphasises an environmentally friendly future could help significantly in the fight against global warming. The researchers who conducted the study warn that even with some lockdown measures staying in place until the end of 2021, without more structural interventions, global temperatures will only be about 0.01 °C to 0.005 °C lower than expected by 2030. “In contrast, with an economic recovery tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments, it is possible to avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050,” as noted in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’. Supported by the EU-funded projects CONSTRAIN and CRESCENDO, the researchers argue that the world has a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C if governments choose firm green policies and investments to revive economies after the coronavirus pandemic. “Pursuing a green stimulus recovery out of the post-COVID-19 economic crisis can set the world on track for keeping the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement within sight.” The researchers used global mobility data from Google and Apple and looked at changes in 10 GHG emissions and air pollutants in 123 countries during 2020. Their findings suggest that global fossil fuel CO2 emissions and total nitrogen oxide emissions could have decreased by as much as 30 % in April 2020 thanks to a decline in surface-transport emissions. “As we have shown, the climate effect of the immediate COVID-19-related restrictions is close to negligible and lasting effects, if any, will only arise from the recovery strategy adopted in the medium term.”

Turning point

In a news release, study lead author Prof. Piers Forster from the University of Leeds, coordinator of both the CONSTRAIN and CRESCENDO projects, comments: “The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3°C of additional warming by mid-century, halving the expected warming under current policies. This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change.” He adds that the research “also highlights the opportunities in lowering traffic pollution by encouraging low emissions vehicles, public transport and cycle lanes. The better air quality will immediately have important health effects - and it will immediately start cooling the climate.” Study co-author Prof. Corinne Le Quéré from CRESCENDO project partner the University of East Anglia states: “The fall in emissions we experienced during COVID-19 is temporary and therefore 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.” The CONSTRAIN (Constraining uncertainty of multi decadal climate projections) project that supported the study will run until June 2023. It focuses on how natural and human factors affect multi-decadal regional climate change to help scientists make climate projections for the next 20-50 years. The CRESCENDO (Coordinated Research in Earth Systems and Climate: Experiments, kNowledge, Dissemination and Outreach) project that also contributed to the study provides credible and trustworthy climate projections by improving the representation of key processes in European Earth system models. For more information, please see: CONSTRAIN project website CRESCENDO project website

Keywords

CONSTRAIN, CRESCENDO, climate change, COVID-19, coronavirus, lockdown

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