Did pandemic disruptions help to slow climate change? No, scientists say

The pandemic has disrupted regular life, travel and business on a massive scale, a phenomenon that is still occurring in 2021, albeit on a lesser scale than at the beginning of the pandemic. But did this disruption of human behaviour at least achieve something positive: the slowing of climate change?

According to numerous reports and experts, the answer is clear.

“No,” says Pieter Tans, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

In 2020 we did see a brief dip in emissions due to economic slowdowns. But in 2021, the rate of climate change was similar to what it would’ve been if there was no global pandemic at all, Tans confirmed.

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According to a report from NOAA released in early November, fossil carbon emissions dropped by 5.4 per cent in 2020, but are expected to have increased again by 4.9 per cent by the end of 2021. The projected CO2 emissions for 2021 are 36.4 billion tonnes.

The same report concluded that at the current rate the planet is warming, we have only 11 years left before global warming rises uncontrollably past the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Within the next five years, we could see temperatures cross the threshold of higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to another multi-agency report released this fall compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“Reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 would require cutting total CO2 emissions by roughly the same amount observed during the coronavirus slowdown — every year,” a press release for the NOAA report stated.

And despite the large disruption to human activity in 2020 caused by COVID-19, the actual dip in emissions was small, Tans said.

One of the biggest sectors interrupted by the pandemic for an extended period was aviation.

“Air traffic, it’s a very small fraction of total global emissions,” he explained, adding it amounts to around 2-2.5 per cent, depending on the year.

If that sector suffers a big disruption, “that would give rise to less CO2 in the atmosphere in that one year by about 0.2 parts per million,” he said. “That’s very little actually.

“Annually, CO2 is going up every year by about two and a half PPM over the long run.”

He added that there are natural variations in the annual uptake of release of CO2 from natural systems like forests.

This natural variability is, on average, around 0.5 PPM — “more than twice as large as the [2020 air traffic] slowdown from less fossil fuel emissions,” he said.

Many sectors continued to operate during even the most extensive shutdown periods of the pandemic in 2020, he pointed out.

“Electricity production takes a very big chunk of emissions — coal-fired power plants, gas-fired power plants, that’s something like 40 per cent or so,” he said.

Some things we might not think of as a big emissions producer can take a lot of energy, he said, adding that “the manufacture of cement is just as energy intensive as making steel.”

According to a breakdown of emissions by sector in 2016 from Our World in Data, cement production accounted for three per cent of emissions — more than air travel.

Fossil fuel emissions aren’t the only way to measure the progression of climate change. According to a report entitled the State of the Global Climate 2020, released last April by WMO, 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record, and that more than 80 per cent of the Earth’s oceans experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2020.

And during 2021, we’ve seen more extreme weather events, which are thought to be connected to climate change, such as the flooding from an atmospheric river that struck B.C.

This is a pattern that will only increase in the future, Tans said.

He acknowledged that it can be depressing to be faced with the knowledge that even a global pandemic has not substantially slowed down climate change.

“All this economic turmoil and the effect on emissions is well, small, globally. Then you think, ‘Oh my God, what is it? If we have to get rid of all emissions, you know, is it possible?” he said.

But falling into that trap means ignoring the fact that there are things scientists say we can do which have not yet been implemented.

“We actually know what to do, but we’re not doing it,” Tans said.

The biggest thing, in his opinion, is to move decisively away from fossil fuels and invest in green energy such as solar and wind energy.

“They can be deployed at scale,” he said. “We know how to do this now, and it is cheaper, so we need to really work on that. This is the time to put measures in place to really phase out fossil fuels.”

He pointed out that at the recent United Nations climate change conference, referred to commonly as COP26, the largest single delegation was actually lobbyists from fossil fuel industries, with more than 500 people connected to the industry attending the conference.

“It was the biggest delegation present,” Tans said. “Not in the actual negotiations of course, but right behind them. And they come there with pockets filled with money and promises.”

When countries such as Canada continue to build pipelines while talking about the role of the oil industry in transitioning to green technology, “it misses the point,” Tans said.

“The problem with something like CO2 is that it does not disappear. The CO2 that we emitted already starting in the 19th century, that CO2 is still with us. So it’s a problem of cumulative emissions, not of annual emissions,” he said.

“And that tells you that the longer you wait, getting serious, the harder it gets and the more the climate problem will get out of hand.”

The response to climate change is similar to the global response to the pandemic, he said: “Slow and partial and selective.”

“If you have new variants that develop in countries that have not been vaccinated, you will get these new variants here,” he pointed out. “It’s in our own self-interest to help the whole world actually coping with the pandemic. But politicians don’t see it that way.”

This is echoed in how the plan to tackle climate change should be a global one, he said.

“Countries need to collaborate instead of compete in this case,” he said. “We need to mobilize globally to make this transition.”

This could include wealthier countries helping monetarily if there are regions that lack the funds to move away from existing fossil fuel infrastructure and invest in new technology, he suggested.

And although the lack of a drastic change in emissions even when large percentages of people were doing nothing but staying in their homes may make it seem like our personal choices have little effect on climate change, it’s still important to try to do what you can in your own life, Tans said.

There are smaller things that individuals or even smaller companies can try to do to reduce their emissions, such as building homes with better insulation so it takes less energy to keep the home at a livable temperature, he suggested.

“The importance of doing that is it has a psychological effect,” he said. “We feel that we’re powerless, you know? But actually, no, we’re not powerless.”