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Greenhouse gas emissions around the world nearly back to pre-pandemic levels

CO2 levels hit record high
CO2 levels hit record high 11:06

After declining sharply this spring, global emissions of greenhouse gases are now nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, according to new research from an international group of scientists.

"Climate change has not stopped for COVID-19," the World Meteorological Organization noted in the report, released Wednesday.

What had come to a screeching halt this spring was the movement of people, as many countries imposed strict restrictions on travel, socializing and commuting to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, emissions in April during the peak period of lockdown were down 17% from a year ago, the report noted.

The drop, while unprecedented in scale, was not nearly enough to dent the trajectory of global warming, the report underlined. It was also short-lived: By early June, daily carbon-dioxide emissions were within 5% of their 2019 levels, according to the WMO. 

Emissions have likely risen even more since then. While air travel remains depressed, as of late June passenger car traffic in the U.S. has rebounded to its 2019 level, according to the traffic-tracking firm Inrix.

Transportation isn't everything

One reason emissions didn't drop even more this spring, as some environmental advocates had hoped, is that transportation accounts for a relatively small fraction of the greenhouse gases produced by people. The sector creates about 14% of emissions globally, according to the United Nations. Other areas, such as agriculture and buildings, also produce emissions, and they largely continued to function as normal during the lockdowns.

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To curtail global temperature increases, the world economy would need to be completely reshaped, the report said. Scientists have noted that emissions must drop by 7% a year on average in order to limit the global temperature rise to roughly 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the target goal set by climate scientists. 

Such a stepdown is possible with existing technology, but the task has proven politically difficult.

"Transformational action can no longer be postponed if the Paris Agreement targets are to be met," the scientists wrote.

Already, global temperatures have increased an average of about 1 degree Celsius above their pre-industrial levels.  In the next five years, there is a 1 in 4 chance they will exceed the limit of 1.5 degrees, the WMO report found.

Long-term effects

Emissions for all of 2020 will be slightly lower than last year's, the report forecast. The decrease will likely be between 4% and 7%, with the exact number depending on what happens in the second half of the year. 

Global emissions to drop 8% during pandemic 08:49

But no matter how deep this year's decline greenhouse gases, the drop won't affect the projected short-term trend in global warming. That's because much of the temperature increase is "baked in," a response to heat-trapping gases burned decades ago, not just this year. 

Carbon dioxide stays in the air for a century, so its levels in the atmosphere continue to go up, Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, told The Associated Press.

The WMO report lands while the U.S. is experiencing another record-breaking bout of extreme weather, which is made more extreme by climate change. Just this past weekend, western states saw scorching heat, California lost a record amount of land to wildfires and two new Atlantic storms set records for how early they came in hurricane season. 

Because of climate change, storms are more powerful and heat waves longer and more intense than they were several decades ago, according to experts.

"Drought and heat waves substantially increased the risk of wildfires," the report says. "The three largest economic losses on record from wildfires have all occurred in the last four years."

According to Taalas, these types of climate disasters will continue at least through the 2060s because of the heat-trapping gases already in the air. Such disasters and the upheaval they cause will also reshape much of human existence, impacting everything from where we live to what we eat, to the financial system that underpins modern society.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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