CO2 level at an all-time high even in lockdown. Here’s why.

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Emissions fell by 17% because of the lockdown but CO2 level rose to an all-time high. How can the two happen at the same time? Why should we pay even closer attention?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the most potent heat-trapping (greenhouse) gases, released mostly through human activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation

Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) measured CO2 Level at 417.1 per million over Hawaii’s Muana Loa this month, which is 2.4 parts million higher than this time last year.

Carbon Dioxide Levels Graph

But we all heard the emissions starting to plunge since the start of this coronavirus pandemic. So how come CO2 Level is at an all-time high? Turns out CO2 behaves quite differently to other greenhouse gases.

“The buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill, as we keep emitting, it keeps piling up.”

It’s incredibly challenging to clear CO2 from the atmosphere. The decline in CO2 level during the pandemic has had little effect on the overall emissions humans have created so far. A molecule of carbon dioxide released today can remain up in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. “The buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill,” Ralph Keeling, who directs the Scripps Institution’s program monitoring carbon dioxide, said. “As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up.”  It is true that vehicular and air traffic as well as the industrial activities have reduced sharply in most parts of the world since January 2020. But, this is not the case with our electricity supply: 64% of the global electricity energy mix comes from fossil fuels (coal: 38%, gas: 23%, oil: 3%).  Forest fires and wildfires that are increasing in likelihood and severity due to climate change continue to affect swathes of Brazil, Honduras, Myanmar, Thailand, Australia and Venezuela, each fire emitting large amounts of additional CO2.
why is it a problem?

Historically, emissions come soaring back up after economic downturns. The 2008 [financial] crisis temporarily decreased global emissions by 1.5% for one year and shot back up 5% in 2010. The reduced emissions during the pandemic lockdown may also end up the same way. In fact, human activity related to CO2 emissions is not only increasing but accelerating. The commitment to reduce emissions has to be like the unbreakable vow (what’s up Harry Potter fans?).

We’re living in the worst-case scenario, where fossil-fuel burning continues at a business-as-usual rate, and as humanity exhausts the reserves over the next few decades, and CO2 level will continue to rise to 1500 ppm. This is the scenario where we don’t return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future.

But we’re determined to move to the best-case scenario. Because if we don’t, here’s what will happen. Scratch that. Here’s what is happening: 

  • Food: The increased Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere will cause staple crops to give reduced amounts of nutrients such as zinc, iron and protein. We will see a lot more diseases arising because of these deficiencies. Remember feeling weak and tired all the time? That feeling may become the new normal.
  • Hunger: India, some parts of Africa and the middle-east are already going through food insecurity and the problem is just beginning. Using international datasets of food consumption, one study estimates that by 2050, an additional 50 million people in India (2 out of every 5 people)could become zinc deficient, while an additional 502 million women and children under five (1 out of 2 people)  could face anaemia as a result of iron deficiencies.
  • Global Warming: At the current CO2 level growth rate (which is the worst-case scenario), in just a few years we will reach temperature increase of perhaps more than 3oC, a level that climate scientists say would cause bouts of extreme weather and sea-level rise that would put global food supply at risk. Disruptive mass migrations, flooded coastal cities like Bombay, and even destruction of the Amazon rainforest through drought and fire.
  • Economy: India could see $1.2tn of “lost GDP” in total, plus lower living standards for nearly half its population by 2050, compared to a scenario with no climate change, according to a 2018 World Bank study. If 10 Cr people lost their jobs in this corona pandemic, things will actually become much worse.
Damn, this just seems bleak. Is there anything we can do to fix this?

Yes. Because it’s not so bleak. We can definitely do something about it.

COVID-19 provided us with a chance to take stock of the risks we are taking in our unsustainable relationship with our environment and seize the opportunity to rebuild our economies in more environmentally responsible ways.

We must take serious account of global threats such as pandemics and climate disaster in order to build resilient markets, companies, countries, global systems and a healthy, sustainable future for everyone. India is one of the few countries on track to meet 2 of its 3 key NDC commitments

– 40% of non-fossil fuel installed power capacity and

– 33-35% emissions reductions over 2005 in 2030.

India is likely to achieve these goals sooner and go beyond them by 2030. Yet, the third goal of creating a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent additional forest and tree cover by 2030, requires more work. In addition, Indian Railways has also aimed to be a net-zero carbon emitter by 2030. 

This is huge and we should pat ourselves on the back. But, India is still the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, highest through traffic. PwC advocates a target of 350 ppm as the maximum safe concentration of CO2, which would stabilise the global temperature at 1°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid runaway climate destabilisation.

Top 5 ways to reduce CO2 emissions at an individual level
  1. Be Energy Efficient: the greatest thing we can do for the planet energy-wise if we don’t have access to renewable sources of energy is to switch to LED energy-saving lights. Switch off devices, even the plugs, when not in use. Make use of energy-saving modes. 
  2. Buy what you need: You’ll be surprised by how less we need. And it might also be the right time to declutter and keep your home, your mind space as clean, minimal, as possible. 
  3. Work from Home: Frequently talked about during COVID, it is not a bad idea after all. Saves time, increases productivity and most of all reduces our carbon footprint. But, working from home doesn’t mean working all the time. Look after your mental well being.
  4. If you must travel, choose eco-friendly modes of transportation and keep your vehicle’s pollution levels in check. 
  5. Talk about it: Climate change should be part of every conversation. You can make a whole lot of difference from the safety of your homes.
  6. Show some love: Support local parties, businesses, ideas and initiatives that show proactiveness in mitigating climate change.`

We’d love to learn more, tell us how you’re looking after our planet 🙂

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