• Terra Observer

An isolated blip: Why it’s too early to celebrate this year’s emission reductions

Clean air, visible skylines and the return of wildlife. These are isolated blips, says contributor Jade Siewnarine, that won’t last unless Canada sees change at the level of policy.

Jade Siewnarine, Contributor | Opinion

April's average daily emissions decreased by more than 18 million tonnes. (Veeterzy / Unsplash)

COVID-19 is arguably Canada’s, and the world’s, buzz word of the year. The highly infectious novel coronavirus has caused over 390,000 deaths worldwide and has been found in at least 188 countries. Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic back in March, Canada has implemented social-distancing-based public health measures to reduce contact between individuals and halt the spread of the virus—all part of the "new normal".

Some might say the environment seems to be benefiting from this decrease in travel and commercial activity. Closures have initiated a dramatic plunge in global energy output and consumption, significantly reducing worldwide CO2 emissions in a relatively short period of time. Improved water quality, suddenly visible skylines and the success of wildlife on beaches once trampled by tourists have given people the impression that COVID-19 is the beginning of the end to our environmental problems.

It might appear so, but that’s too simplistic of a view—especially when the progress we’re seeing is due to a reduction in human activity that can’t be sustainable in the long run.

Researchers have been investigating these dips in CO2 emissions to determine whether they’re significant enough to curb climate change. A recent peer-reviewed study in the journal of Nature and Climate Change analyzed six economic sectors (power, industry, surface transport, residential and aviation) across 69 countries. Researchers found that in five sectors, economic activity experienced a 15 to 75 per cent reduction in emissions. On April 7, global CO2 emissions were the lowest they had been since April 2006. The drop in emissions for the year marks the largest single-year decrease in absolute emissions since the end of World War II.

Researchers have explained this unusual decrease—April's average daily emissions decreased by more than 18 million tonnes—is largely driven by low activity in the surface transport, power and industry sectors. These three sectors account for 86 per cent of total emission reductions.

Less CO2 has also led to cleaner, clearer air. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Toronto’s air quality has improved thanks to a decrease in traffic. The concentrations of traffic-related air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and ultra-fine particles, have been reduced by more than 30 per cent.

Eighteen million tonnes is hard to imagine—but the monthly CO2 emissions data for the 2020 year is misleading. Reductions should be celebrated when they’re achieved because of sustainable, long-term changes in human consumer behaviour. In reality, we’re experiencing an isolated data point, one that will change when economies restart. Drops like these are outliers in decades-long trends—small blips in time that can’t provide a true picture of our emissions trajectory. Due to the natural variability of the carbon cycle and larger-scale meteorological patterns, it’s difficult to determine the effect of these relatively short-term economic shutdowns on the environment.

The 2008 financial crisis proved it. The most recent economic shutdown in 2008 was followed by a one-year global decline in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By 2009, emissions were down by 1.3 per cent. Yet industry activity picked up again as economies recovered, increasing emissions by five per cent, an all time high, just one year later.

Just like that, the glimpse of hope for a long-term decline in GHG emissions was overturned as if nothing had changed.

So who’s to say we won’t see the same story unfold again? Researchers say a rebound in emissions is likely and that the clear skies and wildlife victories may be temporary. That’s because global GHG emissions would need to decline by nearly eight per cent annually for the next ten years in order to reduce rising global temperatures.

Toronto Public Health estimates the city's air pollution causes 1,300 premature deaths annually. (Wikimedia Commons)

The best case scenario would be to see pre-confinement level economic activity returning in late July with a slow rise in productivity. This would likely decrease global emissions to 7.5 per cent for the year, just shy of the UNEP-determined goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

The peer-reviewed study in Nature and Climate Change says that the changes we’re seeing in 2020 are likely to be temporary. These changes don’t reflect any structural change to the economies, transportation infrastructure or energy systems of countries.

“The social trauma of confinement could alter the future trajectory in unpredictable ways, but social responses alone, as shown here, would not drive the deep and sustained reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions,” the study’s authors write.

While we can take some comfort in the fact that the year’s emissions will create substantial reductions—effectively giving the planet a ‘breather’—we’re far from finished with climate action. We need long-term, sustainable and structural change to curtail the inevitable emissions rebound of the post-pandemic world and to build a sustainable future.

Although the spotlight on the climate crisis may be temporarily dimmed during this time of global uncertainty, it remains a looming concern that deserves our attention and action. It’s a fight that we cannot forget.

Emissions may be plummeting right now because of changes to individual lifestyle choices and the shutdown of major emitting industries, but this is not an individual battle. It’s a collective one that we need to keep in the front of our minds as we face the threat of a warming world.