The sudden reduction of greenhouse gas emissions during COVID-19 will not have a major influence on global warming, but the way that the world moves forward from the pandemic could make a huge difference.
According to researchers at the University of Leeds, a climate-friendly economic recovery plan could help to limit the damaging effects of climate change.
The study authors warn that even with some lockdown measures staying in place to the end of 2021, global temperatures will only be about 0.01 degree Celsius lower than expected by 2030 without structural changes.
On the other hand, the researchers estimate that adopting new climate policies during economic recovery could prevent more than half of the global warming that is expected by 2050.
“Both sobering and hopeful, the flash crash in global emissions due to lockdown measures will have no measurable impact on global temperatures by 2030; but the decisions we make this year about how to recover from this crisis can put us on a solid track to meet the Paris Agreement,” said study co-author Joeri Rogelj.
“Out of this tragedy comes an opportunity, but unless it is seized a more polluting next decade is not excluded.”
The team calculated changes in ten types of greenhouse gases and air pollutants between February and June 2020 in 123 countries. Despite substantial improvement in air pollution during the pandemic, including reductions in CO2 emissions, the climate impact of COVID-19 lockdowns will not be significant in the long term.
The researchers also modeled various scenarios for post-lockdown recovery and identified a unique opportunity for a net-zero emissions future.
Study lead author Professor Piers Forster is the director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds.
“The choices made now could give us a strong chance of avoiding 0.3C of additional warming by mid-century, halving the expected warming under current policies. This could mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change,” said Professor Forster.
“The study also highlights the opportunities in lowering traffic pollution by encouraging low emissions vehicles, public transport and cycle lanes. The better air quality will immediately have important health effects – and it will immediately start cooling the climate.”
Study co-author Harriet Forster said the research shows that the actual effect of lockdown on the climate is small. “The important thing to recognize is that we’ve been given a massive opportunity to boost the economy by investing in green industries – and this can make a huge difference to our future climate,” said Forster.
“The lasting effect of COVID-19 on climate will not depend on what happens during the crisis, but what comes after,” said study co-author Matthew Gidden.
“Stimulus focused on green recovery and low-carbon investment can provide the economic kick start needed while putting the world on track to meet climate pledges.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.