COVID19 emissions drop ‘no substitute’ for climate action

Published by Kayle Crosson on

March 23th, 2020

Any COVID-19 triggered emission reductions cannot substitute concerted climate action, the World Meteorological Organization has said. 

The UN climate body has warned that while there was an estimated 25 per cent CO2 emission reduction over a four week period, levels of the greenhouse gas have been higher than last year. 

A monthly average taken in Hawaii showed that CO2 levels for February this year were at 414.11 parts per million (ppm), compared to 411.75 ppm in February 2019. 

“Despite local reductions in pollution and improvement in air quality, it would be irresponsible to downplay the enormous global health challenges and loss of life as a result of the COVID19 pandemic,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said. 

“However, now is the time to consider how to use economic stimulus packages to support a long-term switch to more environmentally and climate-friendly business and personal practices,” he continued. 

Mr Taalas also stressed that “past experience” indicates that any emission decline during an economic crisis is followed by “a rapid upsurge”. 

“We need to change that trajectory”, he said, and added that the world needed to “demonstrate the same unity and commitment to climate action and cutting greenhouse gas emissions as to containing the Coronavirus pandemic”. 

Air Quality 

Overall, the WMO reports, nitrogen dioxide levels have been significantly reduced in China and Italy during lockdown periods. 

The pollutant is harmful to human health and also is described by the WMO as a “short-lived climate forcer”. 

It has roughly a one-day lifespan in the atmosphere before being deposited or reacting with other gases, making the effects of emission reduction visible in a very short period of time. 

Concentrations of particulate matter have additionally declined, which also has negative impacts on human health. 

Experts have stressed that the current crisis should not be expected to have a beneficial influence on the planet as the “climate doesn’t really respond to [reduced] emissions on that timescale,” according to Professor John Wenger of University College Cork. 

“We are definitely seeing an effect on air quality and air pollution because of reduced air travels but remember that we are talking about the climate,” Prof Wenger told The Green News. 

“Any real impact on the climate would require a long period of change,” he added. 

The economy will also be drastically hit by the COVID-19 crisis, and pressure is growing for the Irish government to take rapid and concrete steps to stabilise the economy that puts protection of those hit hardest by the impacts of COVID-19 front and centre. 

Feasta, an ecological economics group, is urging the government to introduce universal basic income to improve financial security for everyone, irrespective of their employment status. 

Doing so, the group says, would make it easier for people to adapt to enforced quarantine and reduce pressure on sick workers to get back to work and potentially spread the infection. 

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Kayle Crosson

Kayle is a multimedia journalist focused on climate and environmental issues and contributes to The Irish Times and The Green News.