Covid and Climate: How Much is Too Little?

By JUSTIN STEVENS (Director, Climadapt)

The second wave of COVID-19 is still hitting many countries, and total lock-downs are the norm. Working from home and travel bans have resulted in a fall in CO2 emissions, outpacing the 2008 recession and even WWII. So has this bought us more time, and is the climate emergency now a little less urgent?

A report published by the World Meteorological Organisation in September 2020 showed that the reduction of emissions from COVID-19, although significant, was not enough. It was also the case that, towards the end of the first wave, emissions started to increase again.

Even now, in the midst of another even deeper lockdown, the world’s climate emissions are above what is needed to keep temperatures below 2 degrees. They actually need to fall by at least 7.6% globally, each year, until they are zero. Because so much carbon has soaked into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and since it lasts for several hundred years, our ability to emit even more without consequences is shrinking. Each gigatonne now only adds to the carbon ‘bank’ – at present over 415ppm. The last time this amount of carbon was seen in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago, when sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are now. And the warming created by carbon takes time to happen.

For some, the election of President Biden in the US and his subsequent rejoining of the Paris Agreement was a cause for hope. Unfortunately, it is the case that even if countries meet commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement – and there is not much to even bind them to those commitments – the world is still heading for a 3.2 degrees rise in global temperature.

These are scary figures to get your head around, and perhaps that explains why many people – including entire governments – are burying theirs in the sand.

What it means, for both them and the rest of us, is at least 3 degrees rise by 2100. If you want to know what a planet 3 degrees hotter looks like, check out this video.

There’s a chance, of course, that there will be a flurry of new policies aimed at driving down climate emissions and perhaps even the deployment of technologies from the atmosphere. If that happens temperatures will stay within 2 degrees rise – with deep impacts to our way of life, but ones far easier to deal with than if it gets to over 3 degrees.

And there’s also a chance, as we saw with the first wave of COVID, that industries will roar back into life, and emissions will continue on an upward trajectory. Indeed, many nations have already indicated that ‘economic growth’ (as measured by GDP, the thing driving emissions) takes priority.

We’ll see. But whatever happens, we need to be prepared.


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