Creating a Plan for Cleaner Air

A recent study reveals that when carbon dioxide levels return to pre-pandemic levels, policy and behaviour adjustments are required.


Clear air in formerly murky, smog-ridden places was one of the most startling pictures to emerge from the COVID-19 epidemic. Carbon dioxide emissions plummeted when cities went into lockdown and air transportation came to a standstill. On Twitter, memes saying that “nature is healing” trended, a vulnerable turtle species in Thailand increased its population, and dolphins were observed swimming in Venice, Italy.

While the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global carbon dioxide levels is unknown, data collated and examined by an international team of experts reveals a dismal reality: global carbon dioxide levels did not drop significantly as a result of the epidemic. Furthermore, global carbon dioxide levels are rapidly recovering to pre-COVID levels.

Corine Le Quéré, a Royal Society Research professor of climate change research at the University of East Anglia and one of the study’s main investigators, adds, “I mean, a 5% decline is incredibly insignificant.” “To put it another way, we released 95 percent as much carbon dioxide in 2020 as we did in 2019, so that’s extremely small.”

CO2, or carbon dioxide, is a heavy, colourless greenhouse gas produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Despite the fact that carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere, it is now greater than it has been in at least 800,000 years, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Heat has been trapped in the atmosphere as a result of increased CO2 emissions, boosting the Earth’s average temperature and producing catastrophic weather events and fast climate change.

Nonetheless, the pandemic’s small reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions is notable for the opportunity it has afforded to study cause-and-effect in real time. According to Le Quéré, the quick changes in people’s behaviours throughout the world helped scientists to figure out what kinds of adjustments – whether in behaviour or policy – would be most helpful in combating climate change. “We’ve seen extensive behavioural shifts with the pandemic, which has allowed us to understand what you can accomplish with behaviour.”

“To confront climate change, you have to get emissions down to virtually zero, and you can’t achieve that with only behaviour,” Le Quéré adds.

Individual behavioural alterations, such as converting to an electric car or travelling less frequently by air, are significant, but they cannot replace policy-level changes and industry adaptations. In a 2019 Time article, Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, explains that “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption risks losing sight of the elephant in the room: civilization’s overall reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transportation, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.”

“We don’t know the entire impact of the COVID epidemic on emissions since many sites still have restrictions in place,” explains Le Quéré. “It might be a few years before we know for sure what the impact on emissions has been.” But it’s evident that this hasn’t replaced climate policy, and we’re virtually back to square one.”

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