Apr 23, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Carbon emissions fall, but not as much as you might think

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Data: Carbon Brief, IEA and UNEP; Note: Carbon Brief analysis projects COVID-19 impact, IEA shows current emissions pathway, and UNEP’s “emissions gap” report shows needed path for the Paris Agreement’s goals; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Global carbon emissions are projected to drop an unprecedented 5.5% this year, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief, a website on climate change and energy.

Yes, but: They'll need to fall a lot more than that — not just in total, but even on an annual basis. The 2015 Paris Agreement is designed to keep global temperatures rising no more than 1.5°C over the coming decades. That would require an annual 7.6% drop in emissions.

The bottom line: A global pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce carbon emissions. Even an enormous fall in economic activity doesn't naturally reduce emissions by as much as is needed.

  • If you thought the recent 90% reduction in international travel might do the trick, consider yourself disabused. Any workable solution is going to have to be able to accommodate growth, rather than calling for shrinking the economy.

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