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The UK’s CO2 emissions fell to their lowest level in almost a century during lockdown, scientists have revealed.
As the nation ground to a halt in late March so did 31% of our total emissions, with transport – notably cars and planes – brought to a near-standstill. The UK had not seen such a low rate of emissions for almost a hundred years, in the mid-1920s.
Research, carried out as coronavirus outbreaks took hold around the world, found that on April 7, the level of emissions had fallen by 17% globally – the lowest the world had seen since 2006.
During peak confinement in individual countries daily CO2 emissions fell by 26% on average. The UK’s average fell even further than this number due to an overrepresentation in surface transportation – mostly made up of private cars and other road vehicles – a huge proportion of which was taken off the road as businesses shut up shop on March 23.
The study’s lead author, Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, explained: “A lot of emissions in the UK come from surface transport – around 30% on average of the country’s total emissions. It makes up a bigger contribution to total emissions than the average worldwide.
“It was also the sector that was most affected by lockdown as a result of people being forced to stay at home and, in particular, not able to drive to work.
“The UK also reached full lockdown, whereas lots of the countries we studied did not, so that made a difference in terms of its average.”
In order to estimate daily global CO2 emissions – which are usually measured months or years after the fact – researchers had to take a radically different approach.
The peer-reviewed paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, examined six sectors which usually contribute to climate change; electricity and heat, the largest factor; industry; surface transport; homes; public buildings and commerce; and aviation.
Usage during lockdown was calculated using a variety of methods from different countries, with changes in the residential sector, for example, inferred from UK smart meter data.
In order to meet the ambitions of the 2015 Paris Agreement the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, of keeping global warming below 2C, the world needs to collectively slash emissions 45% from their 2010 levels by 2030.
Failure to do so, scientists say, will risk a build up of greenhouse gases so significant that unpredictable, disastrous climate events will accelerate rapidly both in frequency and scale.
What the pandemic has shown, Le Quére explained, is how ill-prepared we are globally for deadly events like a disease outbreak or a natural disaster.
“This crisis has really shown how vulnerable we are and how we don’t take the risks seriously enough. We were unprepared, worldwide, to deal with this crisis in spite of the fact that there have been coronaviruses before.
“With climate change it is the same. Scientists have been saying for decades ‘there is a huge problem, we need to tackle climate change, we need to adapt and prepare’, but that just isn’t happening.
“I am hoping and expecting that governments, when they rebuild the economy and society, they will rebuild in a way that is a lot more resilient to the risk of extreme events like pandemics and climate change.”
According to Le Quéré drop in emissions in 2020 is likely to be the biggest since World War Two, but, temporary in nature, the pause of lockdown isn’t enough to stave off global warming.
“It’s the biggest decrease in emissions, but the impact of that decrease on global warming will really nothing because global warming is caused by an accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere – which has taken place over decades.
“To stop global warming we need to bring emissions down to zero, and just now we’ve seen a drop of 17% globally. It’s been a terrible event, but this [coronavirus] is really just a small thing and to attack climate change we need structural, long-term efforts.”
Le Quéré is clear – the huge changes, born out of a need to contain a deadly pandemic, are not sustainable.
In order to avoid climate disasters on a catastrophic scale, policy makers need to transform every element of infrastructure – the way we travel, the way we work, the way we consume.
In the wake of the 31% drop, environmental campaigners have urged leaders to use the harsh lessons learnt during the coronavirus outbreak in order to protect society from future disasters.
Let’s learn from this tragedy, build back better and not make the mistake of ignoring the next crisis heading our way.
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, told HuffPost UK: “A 31% emissions drop in April is dramatic, but in the long run it won’t mean anything unless some reductions are made permanent. This lockdown moment is a chance to reset our carbon-guzzling economy and rebuild in a way that leaves pollution in the past, to stop climate-wrecking emissions spiking right back up to where they were before, or even higher.
“In practice that means government and councils have to permanently change how road space is used – to prioritise people over cars, and support walking and cycling. The government should scrap its massive road-building programme in favour of creating the sustainable and modern transport system we urgently need.
“Flying is one of the dirtiest industries, so the government should end their support for airport expansions and introduce a levy on the most frequent fliers. We can eradicate fuel poverty by investing in better home insulation, saving lives while at the same time cutting carbon emissions and creating jobs.
“It’s clear that the old normal wasn’t working for people or for the planet, but by prioritising our health and wellbeing with sustainable transport and renewable energy we can make the next normal a clean new world.”
His comments were echoed by Paul Morozzo, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, who also called for the government to take drastic steps as the lockdown is lifted in order to avoid returning to pre-coronavirus emissions.
He said: “The only way this reduction will mean anything is if governments lock it in as we recover and rebuild. We know how to do it.
“We have to rebuild our cities around walking, cycling and public transport. We’ve got to create hundreds of thousands of jobs upscaling renewable energy and insulating people’s homes.
“At its core, it means putting the climate emergency, jobs and health at the very centre of the recovery. Let’s learn from this tragedy, build back better and not make the mistake of ignoring the next crisis heading our way.”
There are clear calls for the nationwide government to take action, but the pressure is also on for local authorities – some of whom are already using a new demand for socially-distance travel to reimagine how our cities function.
In Bristol, for example, the council has announced the pedestrianisation of the historic Old City in a bid to change how people move around the area.
In a statement, Bristol’s directly-elected mayor Marvin Rees said: “Work on the Old City and Bristol Bridge proposals are already underway, but the coronavirus means we now need to accelerate the changes that will transform the way we travel in the city centre.
“The current situation is challenging our usual travel habits and behaviour in a way that we’ve never seen before. Many of us have already embraced more walking and cycling journeys and, whilst it is understandable bus usage has dropped, we want to protect the long-term viability of our public transport services because of their intrinsic value to communities across the city.”
Elsewhere councils are also waking up to the new ways in which their residents will interact with their local area post-coronavirus, and some politicians with responsibility for remits such as waste and energy are pushing forward radical proposals for a new era.
Hackney councillor Jon Burke, who oversees the borough’s approach to energy, waste, transport and public spaces, explained that now was the time for leaders to make bold decisions at a local and national level to decelerate climate change – even if they prove unpopular in the short term.
Burke said: “It’s difficult to summarise the true and likely impacts of climate change without sounding as though you’re engaging in hyperbole, but the fact is that all of the reliable science and reliable sources of data are very clear that what’s at stake here is the future of human civilisation.
“I think politicians now have to have the confidence to say that for the right reasons we actually can change rapidly, and there needs to be implications for policymaking.
“We need to address not just the crisis we’re in now, but use this as a springboard to avoid future similar crises, improve resilience and reimagine the world in a different, better way.”
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