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Will COVID-19 put the kibosh on major in-person conferences for good?

Drop in carbon emissions puts wheels in motion for change
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Networking at GLF Nairobi 2018: Forest and Landscape Restoration in Africa. GLF

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The COVID-19 global lockdown has made a big dent in daily carbon emissions, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

At the peak of social-isolation measures introduced by governments in early April, they decreased by 17 percent – or 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – compared to mean daily levels in 2019, according researchers, who stated that the lower levels were last observed in 2006.

“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post COVID-19 will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come,” said lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré a professor at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

“Opportunities exist to make real, durable, changes and be more resilient to future crises, by implementing economic stimulus packages that also help meet climate targets, especially for mobility, which accounts for half the decrease in emissions during confinement.”

Emissions from surface transport, including as car travel, account for almost half of the decrease in global emissions during peak confinement, the report says. Emissions from industry and from power account for a further 43 percent of the decrease.

Although aviation is the economic sector most affected by the lockdown, it only accounts for 3 percent of global emissions, or 10 percent of the decrease in emissions during the pandemic, the report says.

The analysis demonstrates that social responses alone, without increases in wellbeing and supporting infrastructure, will not achieve the sustained reductions needed to reach net zero emissions, the researchers said in a statement.

Overall, the impact of social confinement on 2020 annual emissions is projected to be from 4 percent to 7 percent compared to 2019, depending on the duration of the lockdown and the extent of the recovery.

“This annual drop is comparable to the amount of annual emission reductions needed year-on-year across decades to achieve the climate objectives of U.N. Paris Agreement,” the report says. 

The international goal under the 2015 agreement is to curb average temperatures and stop them from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

“The drop in emissions is substantial but illustrates the challenge of reaching our Paris climate commitments,” said Stanford University’s Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project which co-authored the analysis. “We need systemic change through green energy and electric cars, not temporary reductions from enforced behavior.”

Worldwide, climate activists and concerned citizens have been mulling the feasibility of conducting conferences online for good, rather than flying en masse to network and conduct presentations in person.

Could conferences — often at the core of developing professional networks, disseminating scientific knowledge exchanges and the diplomacy of policymaking — grow into digital hybrids?

Already, as a story on Landscape News reports, many climate-related events have been canceled, and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences, which this year were set to see countries increase their commitments to reducing emissions and combatting climate change, have been postponed.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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