Rising Global Emissions Puts Focus on Changes in Transportation Sector

Some of the most dramatic images to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic were those taken of clear air in previously hazy, smog-ridden cities. As municipalities went into lockdown and air transportation came to a halt, carbon dioxide emissions decreased as well. Memes claiming that “nature is healing” trended on Twitter, a threatened species of turtle in Thailand began increasing its numbers and dolphins were spotted swimming in Venice, Italy.

However, while the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on worldwide carbon dioxide levels is still unclear, data compiled and analyzed by an international team of scientists points to a disappointing reality; Worldwide carbon dioxide levels didn’t drop an extraordinary amount due to the pandemic. Additionally, the world is quickly returning to the pre-COVID international carbon dioxide levels.

“I mean, a 5% decrease is extremely small,” says Corine Le Quéré, a Royal Society Research professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia and one of the lead scientists of the study. “Another way to think of it is that in 2020 we emitted 95% as much carbon dioxide as we did in 2019, so it’s really tiny.”

Carbon dioxide, often abbreviated to CO2, is a heavy, colorless greenhouse gas formed in the combustion of fossil fuels. Although carbon dioxide is a natural part of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Increases in CO2 emissions have caused heat to trap in the atmosphere, thus raising Earth’s average temperature and causing extreme weather events and the rapid changing of the climate.

Nonetheless, the slight decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions as a result of the pandemic is noteworthy in the opportunity it has provided to measure cause-and-effect in real time. Le Quéré says the rapid changes in habits by individuals around the globe allowed scientists to understand what types of shifts — whether it be in behavior or policy — will be most effective in tackling climate change. “What we’ve seen with the pandemic is really akin to widespread behavioral changes, which has allowed us to see what you can do with behavior.”

One thing is now clear, Le Quéré says: “To tackle climate change you have to bring down the emissions to almost zero and you cannot do this with just behavior.”

Although individual behavioral shifts — such as switching to an electric car or opting to travel less frequently by air — are important changes, they do not take the place of policy-level change and industry adjustments. Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, explains in a 2019 Time article that “focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.”

One of the most dramatic findings resulting from the international study is the direct connection between the transportation sector and air quality, with decreased road travel having an immediate effect on carbon dioxide levels. “As soon as we had the lockdown measures, the emissions from transportation stopped straight away,” Le Quéré says. “Road transport was really an instantaneous response. To me that said if we wanted to cut the emissions in the road transport sector, we would also have a response that was pretty fast.”

Additionally, research is showing that one of the main reasons that global carbon dioxide emissions decreased in 2020 is because of shifts in road transportation. All of this points to the definitive importance of making policy and industry changes in the transportation sector, according to researchers involved in the study.

This data supports the necessity of countries providing their citizens with a variety of green options, and swiftly upgrading their infrastructure. “There is an urgent need to include sustainable and climate resilient infrastructure as an integral part of green growth to deliver energy, water, and transportation solutions that will facilitate opportunity, connection, and sustainable growth,” Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary-general said in a recent U.N. report.

Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands offer examples of some of the best biking infrastructure in the world, with both countries featuring a huge network of protected, one-way bike lanes and major driving limitations. Internationally, Singapore is continuously ranked as having some of the best and most affordable public transport solutions available to its citizens, with an accessible and convenient subway system. Environmental scientists say these countries offer models of what proactive, sustainable, and efficient transportation shifts can look like. They demonstrate that a culture of using public transportation begins with governmental policy that prioritizes a sustainable infrastructure, and provides options to its citizens.

Le Quéré says she was disappointed with the results of last month’s U.N.-hosted climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. She says the global summit, called COP26, provided an opportunity for leaders to act upon the urgent data pointing to the necessity of immediate and drastic measures to stop climate change. “There needs to be a lot more work. It really came back very, very clearly from COP26,” says Le Quéré. While there were some secondary announcements that proved promising, like the Global Methane Pledge and the pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, carbon dioxide decrease pledges by individual countries were less than ideal. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said himself that the COP26 agreement was “not enough” to neutralize global climate disaster.

The broad scope of what can be learned from carbon dioxide shifts due to the pandemic is still unclear, but the need for immediate change is glaring, Le Quéré says.

“The full effect of the COVID pandemic on emissions is not yet known because many places still have measures in place,” Le Quéré says. “It might take quite a few years until we know for sure what the impact has been on emissions. However, It’s already clear that this hasn’t replaced climate policy and we’re almost the same as before.”

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Rising Global Emissions Puts Focus on Changes in Transportation Sector originally appeared on usnews.com

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