A tenfold increase in the level of cuts of fossil fuel emissions is needed to tackle the climate crisis, a study warns.
Research from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Stanford University and the Global Carbon Project suggests that growth in fossil fuel carbon pollution was already faltering before Covid-19 lockdowns saw emissions tumble.
But far greater ambition is needed ahead of a key UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, the researchers warned.
Their analysis looked at what has happened to global carbon emissions since the Paris climate accord was agreed in late 2015.
The Paris Agreement committed countries to limiting temperature rises to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to curb warming to 1.5C to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that 64 countries cut their fossil fuel-related carbon emissions between 2016 and 2019, mainly through renewables and reducing energy use.
But average annual cuts of 0.16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide achieved by these countries are only 10% of the 1-2 billion tonnes of reductions needed globally every year to tackle climate change.
The research also showed that 150 countries saw emissions rise between 2016 and 2019, and overall global carbon output from fossil fuels increased by 0.21 billion tonnes a year on average, compared to 2011-15.
Cuts were achieved by high-income countries including the UK, which reduced its emissions by 3.6% a year on average, the EU and the US.
In upper middle income countries emissions have risen in the past five years, but growth has slowed considerably, suggesting climate action is under way in many countries.
China’s emissions increased only 0.4% a year on average between 2016 and 2019, much less than the 6.2% annual growth of 2011-15.
The analysis highlighted a 2.6 billion tonne cut in fossil fuel carbon emissions in 2020, down 7% on 2019 levels as a result of lockdown measures implemented around the world to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
A cut of that size has never been seen before, the scientists said, but reductions of almost as much are needed every year throughout the 2020s and beyond to avoid exceeding the limits in the Paris Agreement.
It highlights the scale of what needs to be done to tackle climate change, they warned.
When countries were at the peak of their lockdown measures, emissions decreased by an average of 27%, the study said, with curbs on transport playing the biggest role.
But early data suggests global emissions were on the rise again in December 2020, potentially offsetting the decrease caused by lockdown measures.
The scientists said a full rebound of emissions to their pre-Covid trajectory was unlikely in 2021, as the pandemic persists, and due to the more than 2,000 climate policies and laws already in place around the world.
However, it hinges on aligning economic stimulus packages with climate action, they warned, urging incentives such as deploying electric vehicles, boosting walking and cycling and supporting large-scale renewables rollouts.
To be at the scale necessary to meet climate objectives such measures need to deliver a tenfold increase in emissions cuts compared to those seen during 2016-19 among countries which were cutting carbon, they said.
Prof Corinne Le Quere, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “Countries’ efforts to cut CO2 emissions since the Paris Agreement are starting to pay off, but actions are not large-scale enough yet and emissions are still increasing in way too many countries.
“Now we need large-scale actions that are good for human health and good for the planet. ”
Co-author Prof Rob Jackson of Stanford University said commitments to cut emissions were not enough.
“Countries need to align post-Covid incentives with climate targets this decade, based on sound science and credible implementation plans,” he said.
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