Jo Khan* says scientists have declared Earth’s ‘vital signs’ are worsening, despite a change in habits because of COVID-19.
Chances are in the past 18 months you’ve heard someone exclaim that air travel is at an all-time low, and how good that must be for the climate.
But scientists have confirmed that despite many industries and human activities slowing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Earth’s “vital signs” have actually worsened over the past two years.
And with catastrophic floods in Europe and India, unprecedented heatwaves in British Columbia and dozens of wildfires raging across the US west, it’s frighteningly obvious that the climate emergency is not going anywhere.
Pandemic disrupts Earth’s ‘vital signs’
The research, published today in the scientific journal BioScience, is not peer reviewed, but is a continuation of the 2019 climate emergency declaration, which was endorsed by over 11,000 scientists.
That number now sits at over 14,000 scientists from 158 countries.
The scientists involved chose 31 indicators that correspond to the effects of human activities on the climate, environment, and society, in an attempt to broaden discussions of climate change beyond global surface temperatures.
These indicators, which they call Earth’s “vital signs”, include things like human population, meat production, tree cover loss, carbon dioxide emissions, national declarations of climate emergency, and sea-level change.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many of these “vital signs”, but also provided insights into how a major shift in human activity can impact climate change, according to report author Thomas Newsome from the University of Sydney.
“Even with that decline in air transport and the general slowdown in human movement, it generally didn’t have an overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr Newsome said.
“Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions have reached all-time highs over the last two years, so they continued to rise in step with surface temperatures.”
Temporary declines in air transport, world GDP, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, have all started to return to pre-pandemic levels, Dr Newsome said.
“It suggests that much more fundamental changes to the way we produce energy are needed than a slight shift in one particular sector,” he said.
The pandemic has also had little impact on the rate of forest-cover loss in the Amazon, which increased to a 12-year high in 2020.
And the number of ruminant livestock worldwide has not been slowed down by the pandemic either — it now reaches over four billion.
That means the total mass of ruminant livestock on the planet is now more than that of all humans and wild mammals combined, which contributes significantly to the production of methane and is also a driver of deforestation.
Fossil fuel subsidies holding back progress
A shift in both fossil fuels divestment and subsidies over the past two years does signal some movement in the right direction, Dr Newsome said.
Around $8.8 trillion (US$6.5 trillion) was divested from fossil fuels between 2018 and 2020, with most of that being from faith-based groups, philanthropic foundations, education, government, and pension funds.
And fossil fuel consumption subsidies — relating to prices consumers pay for energy — fell to a record low of $245 billion (US$181 billion) in 2020, which was 42 per cent lower than 2019 levels.
“It demonstrates that there are economic signals here that we’re heading in the right direction,” Dr Newsome said.
“Divesting in fossil fuels suggests that it’s coming to an end, the world is moving towards renewables.”
But despite an overall global decrease, two recent reports suggest fossil fuel subsidies are still holding back progress on emissions reductions.
One report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that the reform of fossil fuel consumption subsidies in 32 countries could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.5 billion tonnes by 2030.
A separate report from BloombergNEF found that the level of support for all types of fossil fuel subsidies within G20 countries is incompatible with the Paris Agreement goals.
And while we’re responsible for a smaller slice of the subsidy pie, Australia had the largest percentage increase in fossil fuel subsidies from 2015-2019 of 48 per cent, according to the report.
Dr Newsome thinks Australia is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world when it comes to emissions.
“Australia is an outlier in many respects, with both setting a clear target to reach net zero emissions and in terms of actually putting in place effective strategies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
“But equally, while the rest of the world is moving, we’re not seeing the shifts yet in the data that suggests that anything to date has been effective in actually tackling the issue of climate change.”
The report’s researchers said the phasing out and eventual ban of fossil fuels is just one of the solutions required to find a way out of the climate emergency.
An effective carbon price and environment reserves to restore natural carbon sinks are the other two key solutions proposed.
Foreshadowing long-awaited IPCC report
While the “vital signs” are striking, the message is unsurprising, said lecturer in climate science and science communication at the University of Melbourne Linden Ashcroft, who was not involved in the research.
“It is a really effective way of showing people what’s been going on, and echoes research that’s going on in all different fields of science,” Dr Ashcroft said.
“While we have dramatically changed the way we’ve lived in the last 18 months, it’s going to require much more long-term, dramatic change to stop or even slow the worst impacts of climate change.”
Dr Ashcroft said the sheer volume of the “vital signs” considered in the report meant some detail and nuance was lost.
“I’m going to be paying much more attention to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that comes out next month, because that’s been through years and years of revisions and peer review,” she said.
The next IPCC report, due to be released on August 9, will be the most comprehensive assessment on the state of global heating since 2013.
Dr Ashcroft said the paper would give an overview of a huge range of scientific fields and how they relate to climate change.
“I do think there is a place for this very impassioned scientific argument, but I also think there is a place for the IPCC-style report which brings together all of the climate research that’s done all around the world to get an absolute, comprehensive picture of what’s going on,” Dr Ashcroft said.
*Jo Khan is a science journalist and broadcaster with the ABC. She produces Off Track on Radio National and is also an online reporter for the RN Science unit. She can be contacted on Twitter at @JoannaAKhan.
This article first appeared at abc.net.au.