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Carbon emissions have dropped under lockdown. Will it make a difference?

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File: Empty lanes of the 110 Arroyo Seco Parkway that leads to downtown Los Angeles during the coronavirus outbreak in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 2020
File: Empty lanes of the 110 Arroyo Seco Parkway that leads to downtown Los Angeles during the coronavirus outbreak in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically dropped due to coronavirus lockdowns, but the brief pollution break will likely be insignificant when it comes to undoing global warming, scientists say.

In their study of carbon dioxide CO2 emissions during the pandemic, an international team calculated that levels are heading back up as governments ease restrictions – and will end up between 4 per cent and 7 per cent lower than 2019 levels.

That would still be the biggest annual drop in CO2 emissions since World War II.

The new data, published in the journal Nature, gives a clearer picture of what weeks of grounded flights, closed offices, and reduced economic activity has done to the atmosphere.

It found that daily CO2 emissions dropped by 17 per cent in April, at the peak of the pandemic shutdown, compared to their average levels in 2019.

But if the world returns to its slowly increasing pollution levels next year, the temporary reduction amounts to “a drop in the ocean”, said study lead author Corinne LeQuere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia.

“It's like you have a bath filled with water and you're turning off the tap for 10 seconds,” she said.

Climate change is “a cumulative problem,” explains Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway.

“The temperature increase of about 1 degree above pre-industrial levels that we see now is because of emissions over the last 100 or 200 years,” he told Euronews Tonight.

He pointed out that most of the emissions drop that came with lockdowns happened in transportation, while reductions in industry or electricity generation were “much more modest".

“In one sense, it’s sort of disappointing that emissions only went down 17 per cent,” he said, adding that the experiment had shown the limits of changes in individual behaviour – such as halting one’s travel.

“Hopefully we can design better policies that will hopefully get emissions down without affecting people’s social lives so much,” he said.

Spain tries to go green

World leaders agreed in 2015 in Paris to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally no more than 1.5 C by the end of the century. But scientists say countries will miss both of those goals by a wide margin unless drastic steps are taken to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions this year.

As governments across Europe try to map out a road to economic recovery after weeks of crippling shutdowns, some are already choosing to make the next steps green.

France and Germany are pushing for carbon pricing and a so-called green recovery roadmap for the EU. Both France and Austria have attached environmental strings to their airline bailouts.

Spain is now also getting on board with a new draft climate law. If approved by parliament, the bill would prohibit new coal, oil and gas projects, and enshrine in law the goal of making Spain carbon-neutral by 2050.

Juantxo López de Uralde, Unidas Podemos lawmaker and president of the Environment and Energy Committee of the Spanish Parliament, said the law could create up to 300,000 jobs by 2030.

“For a country like Spain, where we have a lot of sun, a lot of wind, but we don’t have any fossil fuels, (…) we believe this is the good way forward socially, economically and obviously environmentally,” he told Euronews.

Moving away from coal

Already, some industry watchers say the COVID-19 pandemic could spell the end of coal, which has powered human activity for over two centuries.

That’s because with so much activity on hold, demand for energy has sunk, while the cost of alternative sources like renewables and gas have fallen, making it cheaper to go green.

The UK has run for more than a month with no coal energy in the grid; Portugal nearly two months.

Onshore and offshore wind, and solar are “the big winners” of this shift towards renewables, says Kathrin Gutmann, the campaign director of the environmental group Europe Beyond Coal.

She hopes governments will view the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to reskill workers and set in motion a sustainable move away from fossil fuels.

“What is important now is to make sure that as part of the recovery, governments put a priority on clean energy, on renewables, to make sure that we do not see a rebound in CO2 emissions because we’re recovering in the wrong way,” she told Euronews.

“There’s a real opportunity to actually build a better future for ourselves and address climate change as we’re doing that.”

You can watch excerpts of the interview with Kathrin Gutmann in the video player above.