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Yannis A. Phillis:The current reduction in carbon emissions is a temporary fluke

Yannis A. Phillis, Professor at the Technical University of Crete, Greece

Dr. Yannis A. Phillis is currently working at the Faculty of Production Engineering and Management at the Technical University of Crete, Greece. His research interests focus on stochastic control, discrete event systems and applications to manufacturing networks and environmental systems, air pollution, climate change, environmental economics, greenhouse effect and global warming. Dr. Yannis A. Phillis is associate Editor of International Journal of Engineering Management, editorial board member of Environmental Engineering and Management, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems and other journals. Dr. Phillis has received professor of the Year award from Boston University in 1986 and lifetime Achievement Award from the World Automation Conference in 2010.

The current reduction in carbon emissions is a temporary fluke

Since the global emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many high-emission industries have stopped working in a considerable period of time, why can't it have a significant impact on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

The short answer is that the temporary reduction in carbon emissions was just an accidental and short-lived blip in a long history of atmospheric carbon accumulation. The 2020 reductions were due to the coronavirus pandemic; not a green plan aiming to keep temperatures below, say, 1.5oC.

The pandemic was officially declared on March 11, 2020, by the World Health Organization. Several countries went into intermittent lockdowns that lasted about one year with immediate effects on atmospheric carbon emissions. Research published in Nature Climate Change in July 2020, estimated the emissions reductions for six sectors under lockdowns that restricted the work routine of most workers except key ones. The results are shown in percentages of global fossil CO2 contributions to emissions and in parentheses the corresponding reductions. Power 44.3% (-15%), industry 22.4% (-35%), surface transport 20.6% (-50%), public buildings and commerce 4.2% (-33%), residential 5.6% (+5%), and aviation 2.8% (-75%).

It is clear from these numbers that aviation suffered the largest emissions reduction but its overall contribution is small. Surface transportation emissions were reduced by 50% but they rebounded fast as lockdowns waned. Industry is following a similar path, although there are still uncertainties about industrial emissions in 2021. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global CO2 emissions went down by 6% in 2020, but by December of the same year they had rebounded as economic activity resumed and surpassed the same month of 2019 by 2%. The emissions output of 2020 had by September returned to 2019 levels. One could say that the news of greenhouse gases (GHG) reduction was too good to be true.

The observed GHG reductions weren't the result of intentional actions leading to structural changes of the economy. They happened by accident and as we are now gradually returning to normality, governments and people are returning to the old mode of economic activity. People want to drive their cars and consume and corporations to raise their profits.

IEA has estimated that coal demand in 2021 is presently growing raising emissions by 5%. Economic stimulus packages are driving global energy demand in 2021 to 0.5% above 2019 levels. Global energy demand in 2020 contracted by 4% but in 2021 it is expected to grow by 4.6%. It is clear that we are returning to business as usual.

The main culprit for climate change is the burning of fossil fuels with a contribution of 81% to CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The remaining 19% is due to land-use change, an oft used euphemism for illegal logging and deforestation. Deforestation in the Amazon was unusually high in 2019 because of the policies of the Brazilian government, making a large contribution to CO2 emissions and biodiversity destruction. The year 2020 wasn't different than years prior to 2019, releasing about 6 Gt of CO2. Research has shown that, all in all, fossil fuels and land-use change in 2020 contributed 40 Gt CO2, just 3 Gt less than in 2019. Of that, about 22% will stay in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands years, warming the climate further.

The problem of carbon mitigation is primarily political. Cop26 is probably our last chance to undertake concerted climate action. As the editorial of the journal Science of August 10th, 2021 ominously noted, "[The AR6 IPCC report] may be the last report that can meaningfully influence policy to keep the climate targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement within reach." Research shows that the global ecosystem is approaching several tipping points. Some of them might have already been crossed. Is this scary enough to our leaders? We have very little time to act. Time is up for empty words by politicians about the urgency of climate crisis that remain just that, empty words.

Interviewer: Xue Zhiyu

Interview date: October 20, 2021

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