Greener Cities Are Healthier Cities

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic is barely making a dent in the continued rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Carbon emissions have fallen dramatically due to lockdowns that have cut transport and industry severely. But this has only marginally slowed the overall rise in concentrations, , says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The details are published in the WMO’s annual greenhouse gas bulletin.

Greenhouse gas concentrations are the cumulative result of past and present emissions of a range of substances, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Through the Paris Agreement, countries are trying to reduce emissions of these pollutants, which are generated through, for example, the burning of fossil fuels. These greenhouse gases trap heat close to the Earth’s surface, driving up temperatures. This planetary warming threatens global food supplies, makes weather events more extreme, and increases the risk of flooding.

According to the WMO, the global average in 2019 was 410.5 ppm, an increase of 2.6 ppm over 2018. This was larger than the increase from 2017 to 2018 and bigger than the average over the past decade. Thanks to lockdowns in early 2020, carbon emissions fell by 17 percent at their peak, but the overall effect on concentrations has been very small. Preliminary estimates suggest that CO2 will continue to increase this year, but that rise will be reduced by 0.08 to 0.23 ppm.

“We breached the global threshold of 400 parts per million in 2015, and just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm, such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records,” said WMO secretary general, Professor Petteri Taalas. “The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve,” he said.

The dramatic drop in greenhouse gases and air pollutants seen during the global lockdown will have little impact on our warming planet.

While there isn’t an overall figure for 2020 concentrations available, yet, individual monitoring stations show that the rise has continued despite the pandemic.

Monthly average CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii—an atmospheric monitoring station—were 411.29 ppm in September 2020, up from 408.54 the previous year. Similarly, at Cape Grim in Tasmania, another atmospheric measurement station, September 2020 saw CO2 concentrations reach 410.8ppm—up from 408.58 in 2019. While there are no details of methane levels for 2020, concentrations of that gas also went up in 2019. Methane concentrations increased by more than the average over the past decade, although the increase was slightly lower than in previous years.

“Although temporary changes can help, you need to reduce CO2 permanently to make a dent in global warming,” said Professor Piers Forster from the University of Leeds. “Disasters are often the time of historic change. For once government, industry and public voices are all aligned that green jobs and green investments are the way to build back better. We just need to do it.”

In the U.S., for example, greenhouse gas emissions rose less in 2020 than in any year since World War II, but they are expected to rise again when the economy recovers. Emissions were 10.3 percent lower than the previous year across all sectors, far outstripping the fall in the wake of the global financial crisis, according to an analysis by researchers at Rhodium Group. It was the first year since the 1980s that the country pumped less than 5.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The decline from previous high levels was driven mainly by lower transport emissions — the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in the US — which slumped 15 percent as restrictions imposed to stop the coronavirus spreading kept aircraft grounded and cars off the roads. Analysts warned, however, that the trend would not last.

“We wouldn’t celebrate these results necessarily,” said Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium and one of the report’s authors. “Typically, a major recession provides a real hit to economic activity and emissions, but they return to the growth that was anticipated.”

Under Donald Trump, the US rolled back swaths of environmental regulations. But Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated as US president later this month, has vowed to make tackling climate change and reducing emissions a priority for his administration. He created the new roles of climate envoy and climate czar to lead that agenda. Biden campaigned on the most ambitious climate platform of any president in US history. He plans to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which Trump left, on his first day in office and pledged a $2 trillion green stimulus package aimed at cutting emissions.

One cause for optimism was a continued slowdown in power sector emissions, which were more than 10 percent lower despite relatively flat electricity demand, as utilities were weaned off carbon-intensive coal-fired generation.

Biden, who has vowed to reduce emissions from the electricity sector to net zero by 2035, will look to speed up the process. Biden’s ambitious policy changes would need to come quickly, however. Without a swift overhaul, analysts said, emissions would begin to rise again rapidly as vaccines were rolled out and economic activity returned to normal.

“If there’s no action taken to build back cleaner and greener, emissions in the US would continue to rise slowly and largely stay around previous levels through 2030, absent new policy,” said Larsen.

While the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed down the increase in concentrations of warming gases in the atmosphere, the decline in emissions in the early part of this year shows what’s possible.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is not a solution for climate change,” said Taalas. “However, it does provide us with a platform for more sustained and ambitious climate action to reduce emissions to net zero [balancing out any emissions by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere] through a complete transformation of our industrial, energy and transport systems. “The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible and would affect our everyday life only marginally.”

Unfortunately, one of the biggest negatives associated with the pandemic, in addition to the pain suffering and death, is the mountains of waste being created by masks that now litter the planet.

Greener Cities and climate action

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