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Climate Change Tracker: Global emissions rise despite pandemic lockdowns

A new UN report says that CO2 levels in the atmosphere has risen in 2020, despite global lockdowns slowing industrial activity

Greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere have risen this year despite pandemic lockdowns. (Photo: Getty Images)

Human beings are an optimistic lot. The desire to find a silver lining in every black cloud is an admirable trait, but increasingly it’s looking like self-delusion. Or, even worse, a useful deception so no one has to do anything about cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A damning report released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on 23 November says the global pandemic lockdowns had next to no effect on the GHGs that are trapping heat and making the earth warmer.

According to the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (GHG Bulletin), the concentration of anthropogenic GHG emissions actually rose between September 2019-September 2020. The Mauna Loa station in Hawaii, which sets the benchmark for the WMO and the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), recorded a monthly average CO2 of 411.3 ppm (parts per million) in the atmosphere, up from 408.5 ppm last year. The Cape Grim station in Tasmania, Australia, recorded a similar rise. The data in the bulletin isn’t restricted to these; it’s also collected from many stations around the world by the Global Atmosphere Watch network, a programme run by the WMO.

Listen to the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

The continuing increase in CO2 levels at a time when global emissions were supposed to plateau and then tail off, is alarming. For reference, atmospheric CO2 level was at about 280 ppm towards the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, around 1760. Up to that point, atmospheric CO2 levels over 800,000 years had hovered between 180-280 ppm. As the WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas said while releasing the bulletin, “The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration was 3m-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now. But there weren’t 7.7 billion inhabitants.” He meant humans. Compared to the GHG levels, the lockdown- related fall in emissions was just “a blip”, Tallas said.

The bulletin details how CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rose through 2019, labelling it a “growth spurt”. “The rise has continued in 2020. Since 1990, there has been a 45% increase in total radiative forcing—the warming effect on the climate—by long-lived greenhouse gases, with CO2 accounting for four fifths of this,” the bulletin says.

A sustained period of decarbonisation is needed to cut the world’s emissions in half by 2030, and limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet, according to the Climate Transparency Report 2020, an annual review of G20 nations’ climate action prepared by 14 global climate agencies, only India is doing its “fair share” to meet the 2 degrees Celsius warming target set in Paris in 2015. But, like the other 19, India too is far from coming anywhere close to meeting the revised 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target. A 2 degrees Celsius warming by 2100 would be catastrophic. The world is already over 1 degree Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times.

Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker. Click on this link to listen to the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

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