CO2 emissions to fall by an estimated four to seven per cent this year

Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions could fall by up to seven per cent this year thanks to coronavirus lockdowns – but climate change continues unabated, UN warns

  • The UN claim CO2 emissions will fall between four and seven per cent in 2020
  • This is still as high as CO2 emission levels in 2006 despite reduced activity levels
  • According to the UN report global temperatures continue to rise at record levels
  • Without at least a 7 per cent sustained cut in pollution each year to 2030 global temperatures will rise above the globally agreed maximum 2.7F increase target

The level of CO2 emissions put into the atmosphere are expected to be between four and seven per cent lower this year, due to coronavirus lockdown measures. 

In April alone, levels dropped by 17 per cent – but they began to return to normal when lockdown was eased and are still as high as they were in 2006. 

According to the UN World Meteorological Organisation ‘United in Science’ report on the state of the global climate – climate change has continued unabated throughout the coronavirus pandemic despite a dramatic reduction in human activity.  

The report found climate change was racing ahead and there were global events to prove it – such as heatwaves in Siberia and melting ice sheets in Antarctica. 

The report warns that the world is not on track in efforts to limit global temperature rises to below 2.7F (1.5C) in order to forestall the worst impacts of climate change.  

Sustained cuts in pollution of at least seven per cent each year over the next decade are required to keep temperatures below the internationally agreed target. 

The UN report into the state of the global climate in 2020 found climate change is spreading unabated and we could see temperatures rise above the 2.7F target by 2024

Arctic sea ice is shrinking, global sea level rises are speeding up and extreme weather events such as heatwaves in Siberia are causing major impacts, the report claims

CO2 emissions have declined in 2020 due to reduced economic activity linked to Covid-19, researchers say, but it has not had any reduction in the total amount of CO2 present in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

There is a one in four chance that temperature will rise above 2.7F at least one year over the next five years, according to Pep Canadell, one of the report’s authors. 


  • Atmospheric CO2 concentrations showed no signs of peaking and have continued to increase to new records.
  • CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by an estimated 4-7 per cent in 2020 due to COVID-19 confinement policies. 
  • Transformational action can no longer be postponed if temperature increase targets of 2.7F are to be met.
  • The average global temperature for 2016–2020 is expected to be the warmest on record, about 1.98F above pre-industrial times.
  • In the five-year period 2020–2024, the chance of at least one year exceeding 2.7F above pre-industrial levels is 24%. 

‘That is, in less than eight years since the Paris Agreement entered into force we might be touching that first critical threshold of [2.7F], which 189 countries committed not to cross,’ he said.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which drive warming of the planet, continued to increase in 2019 and 2020.

And the years from 2016 to 2020 were the hottest five-year period on record.

Arctic sea ice is shrinking, global sea level rises are speeding up and extreme weather events are causing major impacts.

In the five years from 2020 to 2024 there is a 24 per cent chance of at least one year seeing global temperatures exceeding the threshold of 2.7F above pre-industrial levels, the report warns.

These changes will have a catastrophic impact on human populations, according to Eva Plaganyi, a research scientist from CSIRO.

‘Globally, we are wholly unprepared for higher temperatures, more drought and floods, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels threatening coastal and island communities such as Torres Strait Islanders,’ she said.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone but should be a wake-up call that future planetary shocks are best avoided through urgent global co-ordinated action, particularly to reduce the Emissions Gap.

‘The report makes clear that although there were some declines in CO2 emissions due to reduced economic activity, we need sustained reductions to help close the gap.’

‘If we are to limit warming to [2.7F], global emissions need to halve in each of the coming decades,’ explained Jonathan Symons, an international relations expert.

‘Instead, in 2019, global emissions from fossil fuels increased slightly. A small decline in emissions from coal was offset by increased combustion of natural gas and oil.

Symons says if current trends continue we will soon be debating ‘drastic and risky’ interventions to stabilise the cliamte such as solar geoengineering.

In a foreword to the report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it showed that short term lockdowns were no substitute for the sustained action needed.

‘Globally, we are wholly unprepared for higher temperatures, more drought and floods, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels threatening coastal and island communities such as Torres Strait Islanders,’ researchers claim

‘This has been an unprecedented year for people and planet. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide,’ Guterres wrote.

He said our planet had continued warming up at a pace and climate disruption is getting worse – proving long-term and clear transitions are needed.  

‘We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future,’ he urged governments. 

Ed Blockley, the Met Office’s polar climate science manager, said September 2020 was the second time in the modern record arctic sea ice had dropped below 2.5 million square miles.

‘This is a shocking threshold which has been crossed because this summer has seen several periods of very rapid sea ice loss linked, in part, to the record-breaking heatwave in Siberia,’ Blockley said. 

In the five years from 2020 to 2024 there is a 24 per cent chance of at least one year seeing global temperatures exceeding the threshold of 2.7F above pre-industrial levels, the report warns

‘The Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions on Earth to climate change and warming here will have consequences both for the region and the planet as a whole.’

Dr Thomas Mortlock from Risk Frontiers, not involved in this study, said even if we could elminate all CO2 emissions tomorrow the effects on global temperatures wouldn’t be felt for at least a decade due to ‘inertia in the climate system’. 

‘For this reason, we need to be considering climate change in investment decisions today because it is ‘baked in’ for the coming decades at least,’ he said. 

World Meteorological Organisation secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas said greenhouse gas concentrations – already at the highest level in millions of years – continued to rise throughout the pandemic. 

‘Meanwhile, large swathes of Siberia have seen a prolonged and remarkable heatwave during the first half of 2020, which would have been very unlikely without anthropogenic climate change.=

‘This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated,’ he said.

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution


Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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