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Climate change: Global CO2 emissions must decrease tenfold, scientists warn

Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions still need to decrease tenfold to avoid a climate emergency, scientists warn, despite a global fall in 2020 due to Covid-19.

An international team of experts has performed a 'global stocktake' of humanity's progress towards the Paris Agreement – which aims to keep the global average temperature rise to well below 3.6ºF (2°C), compared to pre-industrial levels.

They found global CO2 emissions fell by around 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2, about 7 per cent below 2019 levels, compared to 2019. 

This fall – the largest decrease observed to date – was due to reduced human activity under the lockdowns intended to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

While 2020 has been an effective 'pause button' as far as CO2 emissions are concerned, Covid-19 alone would not result in the required long-term emission reductions, even if lockdowns lasted the rest of the decade.  

Strategies such as the large scale deployment of renewable energy and completely phasing coal and other fossil fuels worldwide will be necessary, the authors say. 

Global CO2 emissions declined sharply in 2020, but with a rebound expected in 2021 efforts must be intensified if the world is to reach the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Completing phasing out coal and other fossil fuels worldwide will be needed. Pictured, oil refineries polling the air in Corpus Christi, Texas 

WHAT IS A CLIMATE EMERGENCY?  

The climate emergency is 'a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it', as defined by Oxford Dictionaries. 

The term was declared the 'word of the year' by Oxford Dictionaries after its usage soared by over 10,000 per cent in 2019.  

The UK declared a climate emergency for the national government and devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales in May 2019.

It was largely a symbolic move in recognition of urgency needed to combat the climate crisis.

The motion did not change the government’s legally binding targets under international accords.  

In Britain, there is steady progress – last year we set a record-breaking run without coal-generated power and generated more electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels for the first time. 

However, more countries need cut their CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to stem the 'climate emergency', which eventually could manifest itself as flooded coastal cities, unbearable temperatures and irreparable damage to ecosystems. 

The new research, which is based on multiple studies and recent monthly energy data, has been conducted by experts at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Stanford University and the Global Carbon Project. 

'Countries' efforts to cut CO2 emissions since the Paris Agreement are starting to pay off,' said Professor Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Professor at UEA's School of Environmental Sciences.

'But actions are not large-scale enough yet and emissions are still increasing in way too many countries.

'The drop in CO2 emissions from responses to Covid-19 highlights the scale of actions and of international adherence needed to tackle climate change.'

The authors analysed emissions trends in different countries since the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, accounting for the massive changes caused by coronavirus, as well as pre-pandemic. 

In order to sustain decreases in global CO2 emissions, strategies such as the large scale deployment of renewable energy (such as solar panels, pictured) and disinvestment in fossil-fuel infrastructure worldwide will be necessary, the authors say

While emissions decreased in 64 countries, they increased in 150 countries between 2016 and 2019 – and also increased worldwide overall. 

CO2 emissions decreased by 0.16 billion tonnes on average each year among the 64 countries where emissions decreased.  

This is a tenth of the 1 billion to 2 billion tonne cuts needed at the global level to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. 

Globally, emissions grew by 0.21 billion tonnes of CO2 per year between 2016 and 2019, compared to 2011 and 2015.    

Results also revealed that in the group of high-income countries, emissions had declined by 0.8 per cent per year on average since the Paris Agreement, with a further decrease of 9 per cent in 2020 due to Covid-19. 

Photo from last year shows climate protest placards in front of the Reichstag building, home of the German federal parliament, in Berlin, Germany 

BRITAIN SETS RECORD-BREAKING RUN WITHOUT COAL  

In June 2020, Britain completed a record-breaking run without coal-fired power.

The run came to an end on June 16, after 67 days, 22 hours and 55 minutes since April 9.

This made it the longest run without coal for Britain since 1882, when the world’s first coal-fired power station, the Edison Electric Light Station, opened in London. 

The coal-free run ended due to a coal power unit running tests after essential maintenance at Drax power station in north Yorkshire, which added some power to the grid. 

By the time it ended, the coal-free run had far outstripped the previous record for the length of time Britain had gone without the fossil fuel – 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes, set in June 2019.

Britain is steadily turning away from carbon-belching sources of energy generation - most notably coal and gas. 

Two coal-powered plants were retired at the end of March 2020 after they burned all their remaining fuel.

There are just three coal plants left in Britain, including Drax's coal unit in North Yorkshire that is set to close in March 2021.    

Of the 36 high-income countries, 25 saw their emissions decrease during 2016 and 2019 compared to 2011 and 2015, including the US (-0.7 per cent), the EU (-0.9 per cent) and the UK (-3.6 per cent). 

Emissions decreased even when accounting for the carbon footprint of imported goods produced in other countries. 

In the group of upper-middle-income countries, growth in emissions had also slowed by 0.8 per cent per year since 2015, but declined by 5 per cent in 2020. 

In this category, 33 out of 99 saw their emissions decrease between 2016 and 2019 compared to between 2011 and 2015. 

Mexico (-1.3 per cent) was a notable example in that group, while China's emissions increased 0.4 per cent, which was at least an improvement on the 6.2 per cent annual growth of between 2011 and 2015. 

Lastly, in the group of lower income countries, emissions had been increasing by 4.5 per cent per year since 2015, and decreased by 9 per cent in 2020. 

Looking to a 'post-Covid-19 era', global annual reductions of somewhere between 1 billion and 2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year are essential throughout the 2020s and beyond.

Only this will be the key to limiting global warming to well below 3.6ºF, in line with the Paris Agreement.         

Unless the Covid-19 recovery directs investments in clean energy and the green economy, emissions will likely start increasing again within a few years, the study authors warn.

Governments should hasten the large-scale deployment of electric vehicles and encourage walking and cycling in cities, they say.  

Not only would this cut emissions from diesel and petrol vehicles, but it would also improve public health.

'Now we need large-scale actions that are good for human health and good for the planet,' said Professor Le Quéré. 

'It is in everyone's best interests to build back better to speed the urgent transition to clean energy.' 

The study, which has been published today in Nature Climate Change, comes ahead of the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which will be held in Glasgow in November. 

COP26 was delayed from November last year due to Covid-19.   

'The growing commitments by countries to reach net zero emissions within decades strengthens the climate ambition needed at COP26 in Glasgow,' said study co-author Professor Rob Jackson of Stanford University.

'Greater ambition is now backed by leaders of the three biggest emitters – China, the US and the European Commission.

'Commitments alone aren't enough. Countries need to align post-Covid incentives with climate targets this decade, based on sound science and credible implementation plans.'    

THE PARIS AGREEMENT: A GLOBAL ACCORD TO LIMIT TEMPERATURE RISES THROUGH CARBON EMISSION REDUCTION TARGETS

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) 'and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)'.

It seems the more ambitious goal of restricting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) may be more important than ever, according to previous research which claims 25 per cent of the world could see a significant increase in drier conditions.

In June 2017, President Trump announced his intention for the US, the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, to withdraw from the agreement.  

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change has four main goals with regards to reducing emissions:

1)  A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels

2) To aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change

3) Goverments agreed on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries

4) To undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science

Source: European Commission 

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