Climate Action

Despite lockdown, greenhouse gases have risen to record highs, UN says

COVID lockdowns reduced emissions by 17% in April, but only briefly. Image: Reuters

Reuters Staff
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COVID-19

  • The COVID-19 lockdowns helped to reduce emissions by 17% in April.
  • But overall, the long-term buildup of greenhouse gases remains unaffected.
  • A new study has found carbon dioxide levels are at the highest they have been in 3 million years.

Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere hit a record high this year, a United Nations report showed, as an economic slowdown amid the coronavirus pandemic had little lasting effect.

The sharp, but short, dip earlier this year represented only a blip in the build-up of climate-warming carbon dioxide, now at its highest level in 3 million years.

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"We have seen a drop in the emissions this year because of the COVID crisis and lockdowns in many countries ... but this is not going to change the big picture," Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency based in Geneva, told Reuters Television.

"We have continued seeing records in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide."

While daily emissions fell in April by 17% relative to the previous year, those were still on a par with 2006 – underlining how much emissions have grown in recent years.

And by early June, as factories and offices reopened, emissions were back up to within 5% of 2019 levels, according to the report by several U.N. agencies.

Even if 2020 emissions are lower than last year's output by up to 7%, as expected, what is released will still contribute to the long-term accumulation since the industrial era.

"The consequences of our failure to get to grips with the climate emergency are everywhere," said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, launching the report in New York.

"Whether we are tackling a pandemic or the climate crisis, it is clear that we need science, solidarity and decisive solutions."

Carbon dioxide levels rising

Presenting the latest data on emissions, global temperatures and climate impacts on Earth's oceans and frozen regions, the report showed atmospheric concentration of CO2 hit 414.38 parts per million in July, compared with 411.74 ppm a year earlier.

Scientists say they consider 350 ppm, breached in 1988, a safe limit.

Environment CO2 emissions COVID-19
Greenhouse gas levels continue to rise and have reached a new record. Image: United in Science Report 2020

As CO2 levels have increased, global temperatures have also risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists say a temperature rise beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees will lead to far worse impacts across the world, including droughts, stronger storms and extreme sea level rise.

"We are really only adapted and able to deal with a very small range of possible weather," Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, told Reuters.

"Even if this is just perturbed a little bit, we come very quickly to the edges of what we as societies can deal with."

The report detailed how climate change is expected to put hundreds of millions more people at risk of flooding. Access to fresh water is also projected to worsen.

The number of people living in water-scarce areas by mid-century is now estimated to reach up to 3.2 billion, up from the previous estimate of about 1.9 billion.

"It is those who are the most vulnerable in society who are hit fit first," Otto said.

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