A growing number of prognosticators expect that global carbon dioxide emissions could fall 5% this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, amounting to the largest annual reduction on record. But climate researchers say there is little reason for celebration, for people or the planet.
CO2 is a long-lived gas. An annual drop in emissions, even one of historic proportions, is unlikely to dramatically change the concentrations of carbon dioxide swirling around Earth's atmosphere. Then there is the nature of the reductions. Few think draconian economic lockdowns, like those implemented to halt the virus's spread, represent a viable decarbonization strategy.
Mostly, the emissions projections show just how much work the world needs to do to green the economy. Holding global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, for instance, would require annual emission reductions of 7.6%, according to the United Nations' projections.
The dynamic highlights the limits of individual action and the need to transform how the economy is fueled, said Shahzeen Attari, a professor who studies human behavior and climate change at the University of Indiana.
"I think what we need is structural change, and that comes from transitioning our entire energy system, the type of vehicles we buy, electricity we consume, weatherizing our homes," Attari said. "Individuals can, in aggregate, push the system, but we need to figure out these pathways of pushing the system."