The COVID-19 pandemic has not curbed climate change

  Last updated September 14, 2020 at 11:27 am


A major report by the World Meteorological Organisation warns that while we’re committed to tackling COVID-19, climate change is continuing at record levels.

covid-19 climate change_melting ice

Credit: Raffi Maghdessian/Aurora Photos/Getty Images

A major report released by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) this week says there has been no slowdown in climate change as a result of the pandemic, despite a temporary decline in greenhouse gas emissions caused by lockdowns and economic downturns.

The United in Science 2020 report warns that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record levels and continue to rise.

Atmospheric measuring stations at both Mauna Loa (Hawaii) and Cape Grim (Tasmania) reported CO2 concentrations above 410 parts per million (ppm) in July 2020, at 414.38 ppm and 410.04 ppm respectively. These are an increase from July 2019 levels of 411.74 ppm and 407.83 ppm.

And while daily global CO2 emissions during lockdown dropped by 17% compared to 2019, the emissions were still equivalent to 2006 levels.

This effect was also only short-lived – by early June 2020, global daily fossil CO2 emissions had mostly returned to within 5% of 2019 levels. Last year’s emissions were a record high.

CSIRO’s Dr Pep Canadell, who helped compile the report, says it’s a timely reminder that while we’re distracted by COVID-19, climate change continues apace, and is likely to become “the biggest ever global crisis”.

The Paris targets are “hopelessly inadequate”

The report suggests that we are on track to fail in keeping global temperature rises below 1.5°C, or even below the less ambitious target of 2°C.

“In less than eight years since the Paris Agreement entered into force, we might be touching that first critical threshold of 1.5°C, which 189 countries committed not to cross,” Canadell says.

Also: The last ice age tells us why we should care about 2°C temperature changes

And Macquarie University’s Dr Jonathan Symons, who was not involved in the report, told the Centre that the Paris targets are themselves hopelessly inadequate: “Even if fully implemented, global emissions would actually be higher in 2030 than today,” he says. “The gap between rhetoric and action on climate change is wider than ever.”

COVID-19 has shown people are capable of taking drastic action

The next five years are critical, according to Monash University’s Dr Paul Read: “We are now heading for an increase of 3.2°C by 2100,” he says. “This means the collapse of the Amazon and the polar ice caps, ocean acidification, inundated coastal cities and most of the Mediterranean on fire, among other [effects],” He adds.

Also: If now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

“For anyone thinking COVID will dampen economic activity enough to forestall the worst of climate change, the latest report says no.”

Nothing less than “a rapid and complete switch away from fossil fuel-based energy to alternative energy sources…in addition to a great increase in energy usage efficiency,” is required if we are to avoid that 2°C rise, according to Emeritus Professor Stephen Lincoln from the University of Adelaide.

That may sound ambitious, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that humanity is capable of taking dramatic action in times of crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone but should be a wake-up call that future planetary shocks are best avoided,” says CSIRO’s Dr Eva Plaganyi.

You can read the full expert comments here.

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About the Author

Joseph Milton
Joe Milton is an evolutionary biologist who, after studying the evolution of plants for ten years at various Scottish universities, made a move into journalism. Since then he has written for the Financial Times, Nature and New Scientist, among others. Joe joined the London Science Media Centre in 2010, where he was Senior Press Officer for Mental Health, before taking up the position of Senior Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre in July 2012.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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