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After Coronavirus Triggers 17% Emissions Drop, Experts Say Only 'Fundamental Structural Change' Can Save Humanity's Future

The research "underscores a simple truth," says climate scientist Michael Mann. "Individual behavior alone ...won't get us there."

Climate change activists from the group "No Going Back—another world is possible," took part in a social distancing protest on May, 4 2020 in St. Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom.

Climate change activists from the group "No Going Back—another world is possible," took part in a social distancing protest on May, 4 2020 in St. Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom. (Photo: Gav Goulder/In Pictures via Getty Images)

After an analysis revealed Tuesday that lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic caused planet-heating emissions to drop in early April by an unprecedented 17%, climate scientists and activists warned that progress will quickly be erased if the world returns to business as usual and called for systemic changes in the global energy, food, and transportation sectors.

"The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post Covid-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come."
—Corinne Le Quéré, lead author

The new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that as countries closed schools and businesses and issued stay-at-home orders last month to contain Covid-19—triggering a worldwide economic crisis—daily global emissions fell to levels not seen since 2006. In individual nations, emissions decreased by an average of 26% at the peak of their confinement.

"Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions," lead author Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the U.K.'s University of East Anglia, said in a statement. "These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems."

The researchers found the rise in people using residential buildings to work from home had a marginal impact on global emissions. Meanwhile, emissions from surface transport such as car journeys accounted for 43% of the decrease and emissions from industry and power collectively accounted for another 43%. By April 30, the Associated Press noted, "the world carbon pollution levels had grown by 3.3 million tons (3 million metric tons) a day from its low point earlier in the month."

The pandemic has spurred demands around the world for a "just recovery" and global Green New Deal that aim to #BuildBackBetter. Although the calls have led to some plans—such as the creation of car-free zones in cities like London and Milan—activists and experts have urged policymakers to go much further. Le Quéré said "the extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post Covid-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come."

"Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement," she added. "For example in cities and suburbs, supporting walking and cycling, and the uptake of electric bikes, is far cheaper and better for well-being and air quality than building roads, and it preserves social distancing."

According to the AP:

Outside experts praised the study as the most comprehensive yet, saying it shows how much effort is needed to prevent dangerous levels of further global warming.

"That underscores a simple truth: Individual behavior alone... won't get us there," Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn't part of the study, said in an email. "We need fundamental structural change."

Mann expanded on his comments on Twitter, highlighting findings about the aviation sector and projections for the future:

In response to the scientist's remarks, video producer Jonathan Paula tweeted, "Great, so the planet is still fucked."

"NO! That is EXACTLY the wrong message to take away from that," Mann replied. "What this means is voluntary actions (like not flying) are inadequate. We need systemic change. And policies to incentivize decarbonization of our economy. Voting is the single most important thing you can do."

Mann was far from alone in using the study to emphasize the necessity of systemic reform to rein in global heating and avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

"This highly impressive and comprehensive paper lays out in detail exactly how, why, and where emissions of carbon dioxide were reduced as countries around the world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic," Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the Met Office Hadley Center, said in a statement. "But although this is likely to lead to the largest cut in emissions since World War II, it will make barely a dent in the ongoing build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

As Betts explained:

Carbon dioxide stays in the air a long time, so although emissions are smaller, they are still happening and so carbon dioxide is still building up, just a little more slowly. If we want to halt the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we need to stop putting it there altogether, not just put it there more slowly. It's like we're filling a bath and have turned down the tap slightly, but not turned it off—the water is still rising, just not as fast. To stop the bath overflowing, we need to turn the tap right down straight away, and soon turn it right off.

Anna-Lisa Mills, who works in sustainable consulting and is a lecturer at Northumbria University in the U.K., tweeted a link to the Guardian's report on the new study. Warning of the consequences of returning to business as usual, Mills declared that "now is our opportunity to shift to a green recovery plan."

"This decline in emissions, the biggest in history, is the result of economic trauma," Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, whose own analysis backs up the Nature study, told the Guardian. "It is nothing to celebrate. It is not the result of policy. This decline will be easily erased if the right policy measures are not put in place."

Echoing Birol in a statement Tuesday, Joeri Rogelj of Imperial College London's Grantham Institute praised the study but said of its findings that "none of this is good news for anyone. It is the symptom of a massive economic disruption caused by the pandemic and the measures to contain it. For the climate, this month-long wake in otherwise record-high emissions is entirely insignificant."

"Even worse, massive economic stimulus measures are now being announced and there is a high risk that short-sightedness will lead to governments los[ing] track of the bigger picture, for example, by putting their money towards highly polluting sectors that have no place in a zero-pollution and zero-carbon society," Rogelj added.

"Such poorly informed decisions would severely set back the transition towards a sustainable future," he warned. "It is thus up to citizens worldwide to demand of their governments that they invest in climate-positive sectors in pursuit of resilient and sustainable future societies."

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