Global Carbon Budget 2020 finds record decrease in emissions

Major highway shown nearly empty of cars

For the past 15 years, the Future Earth research initiative on global sustainability, in conjunction with the World Climate Research Programme, has produced an annual Global Carbon Budget. This project aims to present a complete picture of the global carbon cycle and carbon feedback loops over time. This year’s update, released in early December, includes multiple noteworthy elements.

The 2020 report found a record decrease in carbon dioxide emissions, attributed to COVID-19 interruptions of regular business practices. Global carbon dioxide emissions declined by approximately 2.4 billion tons (7%) from the previous year, bringing global fossil fuel-derived CO2 emissions to 34 billion tones. This decrease is most pronounced in the US, EU, and India, where COVID-19 restrictions were most prominent and prolonged. Due to previous rebounds in emissions following crises, the authors predict that long-term trends will be influenced by the actions taken to stimulate the economy following pandemic restrictions on activity.

Much of the media and public response to this report has centered around the relationship between COVID-19 and carbon emissions, as this moment presents a unique opportunity to prioritize a sustained decrease in global emissions. In order to meet Paris Agreement goals, global emissions must be cut by one to two billion tonnes each year between now and 2030.

In addition to emphasizing the significance of this critical juncture, this report is the first Global Carbon Budget to include gross emissions from land-use in addition to the typical net calculations. For years, Woodwell Chair for Global Ecology Dr. Richard “Skee” Houghton has called for the inclusion of this measurement, which provides information about emissions from clearing land for agriculture and wood harvesting, as well as carbon uptake by regrowing forests.

“Knowing the net emissions from land use change is great for calculating the overall budget but isn’t very helpful for making decisions about land management,” says Houghton. “The gross emissions from land use are much higher than the net, which helps us understand how management of forests could help meet carbon emissions goals.”

Gross emissions from land-use change in 2020 accounted for approximately 16 billion tonnes of CO2 and were partially offset by forest regrowth, which accumulated 11 billion tonnes. These findings underscore the importance of making informed land management decisions in the coming year as health and safety restrictions on development begin to lift.

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