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Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. saw largest drop since World War II due to COVID-19 shutdowns

CO2 levels hit record high
Global quarantine not enough to curb emissions as CO2 levels hit record high 11:06

With many U.S. cities in varying stages of shutdown for parts of 2020, travel was reduced — and so were greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report by the Rhodium Group, an economics and policy research provider, the drop in annual emissions was the nation's largest since the World War II era.

The group tracked the real-time energy and emissions impact of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020. It estimates that the "historic shock to economic activity" led to a 10.3% drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. This finding is based on preliminary economic and energy data.

The reduction means the U.S. is now expected to exceed the target set in a 2009 U.N. agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord of cutting emissions 17% below 2005 levels, with 2020 instead hitting 21.5% below 2005 levels.

However, it still falls short of the goal the U.S. set in the 2015 Paris Agreement of a 26% to 28% drop below 2005 emissions levels. While President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in 2019, President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin it. Still, even with 2020's reduced emissions levels, the U.S. does not appear to be on track to meet the agreement's 2025 goal as economic activity picks back up, according to Rhodium Group. 

The report also notes that the decline in emissions came with an "enormous toll of significant economic damage and human suffering."

"We expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well," the report says.

Rhodium Group reported that three of the leading sectors for greenhouse gas emissions — transportation, electric power, and industry — were also among the sectors hardest-hit by pandemic-related shutdowns. For example, with travel far less in demand during the pandemic, emissions from the transportation sector declined 14.7% between 2019 and 2020. 

While the emissions decline was welcomed, the trend is not expected to last. "Unfortunately, 2020 tells us little about what we can expect to see in 2021 and beyond," the report says.

If the pandemic and economic recession had never happened, the report estimates U.S. emissions would have dropped only about 3%, driven mainly by the decline of coal-fired power plants as well as lower heating demand due to a warmer winter. 

Emissions also shrunk globally during 2020, with the world expected to see the largest yearly global decline ever — as much as 17%, according to an estimate by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

But by September 2020, the WMO was already reporting a rise back to nearly pre-pandemic levels.

Experts say the short-term decline will not be enough to make a lasting impact on the acceleration of climate change.

"The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph," WMO president Petteri Taalas said. "We need a sustained flattening of the curve."

WMO also warned the shutdown's impact on the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere was "no bigger than the normal year to year fluctuations."

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