We’ve made progress to curb global emissions. But it’s a fraction of what’s needed


Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Steve Davis, University of California, Irvine

The global pandemic has seen an unprecedented drop in global emissions, with carbon dioxide down about 7% (or 2.6 billion tonnes) in 2020 overall compared to 2019.

But our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, found this may soon be undone, as unchecked economic recovery would see global emissions bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

It comes as data released this week from the International Energy Agency shows global carbon emissions in December 2020 were 2% higher than the year prior.

Our research found between 2016 (right after the Paris Agreement was signed) and 2019, emissions from 64 countries were declining while emissions from 150 other countries were increasing. This meant global emissions were still growing, albeit a bit slower.

In fact, these pre-pandemic emission declines were just one-tenth of what they needed to be to keep global warming well below 2℃. This is why it’s vital to ratchet up climate mitigation commitments to meet global targets and avoid further environmental damage.

Emissions from wealthy countries

Our research looked at fossil fuel-sourced carbon dioxide emissions in more than 200 countries before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and examined what might come next.

Between 2016 and 2019, the combined emissions from 64 countries declined by 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, per year, compared to the period 2011-2015. For perspective, that’s roughly one-third of what Australia emits each year.

Growth rates of global fossil fuel emissions in gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide.

Most reductions were due to structural changes towards a low carbon economy after Paris commitments were made, such as switching from coal power to renewable sources. Other reductions occurred for reasons beyond climate or energy policies, such as fuel price fluctuations or economic downturns.

The biggest emission declines came from high-income economies: the UK (declined by 3.6% per year compared to the previous five years), Denmark (-2.8%), Japan (-2%) and the US (-0.7%).




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For these countries, emissions dropped for both territorial emissions (associated with the use of fossil fuels) and consumption-based emissions (the consumption of goods and services, such as manufacturing, imported from other countries).

But a few high-income economies increased their fossil fuel-sourced carbon dioxide emissions in the same period. This includes Australia (+1.0%), Russian Federation (+0.2%), Canada (+0.1%) and New Zealand (+0.1%). For these nations, increased emissions can largely be attributed to the continued growth in oil and natural gas use.

Middle and lower income countries

There are 99 countries considered upper-middle-income economies. Thirty of which also showed reductions in carbon dioxide emissions during the five-years before the pandemic, including Mexico, Singapore, Israel, Hong Kong and Montenegro. This is a good sign, as it suggests actions to reduce emissions now extend beyond the most advanced economies.

However, the remaining 69 upper-middle-income countries continued to increase their emissions. For example, emissions from Indonesia grew by 4.7%, Chile by 1.2%, and China by 0.4% each year on average. Depending on the country, the increase was due to the continuous growth in the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas.

Finally, emissions from lower-middle-income and low-income economies showed mostly strong emissions growth. However, most started from very low levels of fossil fuel use — this group of 78 countries account for only 14% of the global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions.

Change in fossil carbon dioxide emissions (per cent per year) in the 5 years since the Paris Climate Agreement. Changes are shown for individual countries (dots) separated in three economic groups.
Le Quere et al. 2021. Nature Climate Change, Author provided

Click here to view the above graph as an interactive, where you can explore country emissions since 1990, and compare up to five countries at a time.

What happens if we return to pre-pandemic levels?

Increasing global action on climate change and the major shake up of emissions by the global pandemic has placed the world in a different place — at least for now.

Many countries have a unique opportunity for large infrastructure expenditure as part of economic recovery plans after the pandemic. If spending is focused on, for instance, clean energy, then economic recovery could accelerate the pace of decarbonisation.




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A number of countries — including South Korea and in Western Europe — have taken this route, favouring green investment as part of their recovery plans.

And a recent UN report shows 48 countries intend to reduce emissions beyond their previous commitments. Some countries, such as China and the UK, went beyond their legal obligations and pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.

These current commitments, however, do not add up to what’s required, globally.

If these new commitments are achieved, global emissions by 2030 would be 0.2% below the 2010 level according to UN numbers released last week.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates emissions need to be reduced by 25% to 50% below 2010 levels to keep global heating between 1.5℃ and 2℃.



Current stimulus packages in place are still likely to cause emissions to rebound to pre-pandemic levels within a few years.

Indeed, the new data from the International Energy Agency suggests global emissions already started to rise again over the second half of 2020, potentially offsetting the drops during lockdowns. Although, it’s still too early to infer the size of the rebound for 2021.

Whatever strategies we put in place, one thing is for sure. Globally, we need to do a lot more: to deliver at least ten times more emissions cuts than our pre-pandemic efforts, while supporting economic recovery, human development, improved health, equity and well-being.




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The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Matthew William Jones, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia; Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate, University of Exeter; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University, and Steve Davis, Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When climate change and other emergencies threaten where we live, how will we manage our retreat?



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Christina Hanna, University of Waikato; Bruce Glavovic, Massey University, and Iain White, University of Waikato

Despite living in dynamic environments and facing an uncertain future due to climate change, New Zealanders generally expect their land and property rights will endure indefinitely.

But little stays the same. As last week’s offshore earthquakes and tsunami alerts reminded us, our coasts and the people who live near them are vulnerable to a range of hazards. Such risks will only increase as sea level rises due to climate change.

The government has announced that the Resource Management Act will be replaced by three new laws, including a Managed Retreat and Climate Change Adaptation Act. The writing is on the wall: planners and communities need to prepare for change.

For those living in highly exposed places, managed retreat may be necessary to save lives and secure public safety.

These “managed retreats” — from low-lying shorelines vulnerable to rising sea level, areas that flood regularly and unstable or exposed land — may be a bitter pill to swallow. Especially so in the midst of a national housing crisis and a global pandemic.

But the impacts of climate change are already being felt, and will compound natural hazard risks well into the future. Some existing developments are already proving untenable, exposing people and the things they cherish to severe harm.

So it’s imperative to include the option of managed retreat in adaptation planning for the most at-risk communities.

Empty and overgrown road and fields
Once a suburban hinterland, Christchurch’s earthquake ‘red zone’ now lies empty and abandoned.
Author provided

What are managed retreats?

Basically, managed retreats involve the strategic relocation of people, assets and activities to reduce risk.

For obvious reasons, retreats require difficult sacrifices for individuals, families and communities. The process can involve a range of mechanisms, including providing risk maps, official notices on land information memorandums (LIMs), development restrictions and financial incentives to relocate.

Planners and academics have been calling for a national managed retreat strategy, and the law change provides a unique opportunity.




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Aside from compulsory acquisition powers used to deliver public works, Aotearoa New Zealand may be the first country to develop specific legislation for managed retreats. The world will be watching with interest.

Managing retreats that are sensitive to the dislocation of people from their homes, livelihoods, landscapes and culture is challenging. Developing the new legislation will involve difficult decisions about why, when, how and where retreats take place — and at whose cost.

Putting people first

Just how these retreats will be managed, however, is yet to be determined. Our latest research examines who manages retreats and how. It’s a timely cue to examine the broad policy options and planning implications.

The proposed legislation presents an opportunity to transform land use patterns
in Aotearoa New Zealand. But as we have seen in Canterbury, Matatā and elsewhere, the way managed retreats are handled matters greatly to the people affected.

At present, local managed retreat interventions are risky – professionally, politically, financially, culturally and socially. The necessary planning frameworks and resources are seldom available to support effective and equitable outcomes.

Some communities exposed to hazards and climate perils also face the risk of maladaptation — paradoxically, their vulnerability is increased by inaction or misguided efforts.




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Who manages retreats and how?

Our research distinguishes three approaches to making policy for a spectrum of possible retreats. Broadly speaking, these are:

  1. government control: using legislation, standards, policies and regulations, central or local government may restrict certain developments or compulsorily acquire property to enforce retreat

  2. co-operative managed retreats: collaborative decision-making and negotiation between government agencies and affected parties, using instruments such as opt-in buyouts, relocation subsidies or land swaps

  3. unmanaged retreats: individual choices influenced by factors such as loss of insurance cover and other market changes, decisions not to invest more in a property or to sell it (potentially at a loss), or to remain in place and face the risk.

Using our framework, we consider the risks and implications of each form of retreat. We draw on decades of lessons from international practice in disaster resettlement and planned relocation.

Getting the law right

Fundamentally, we argue that facilitating co-operative managed retreats is preferable. This means people and communities are embedded in the retreat strategy design, decision-making and delivery.

Necessarily then, flexible, collaborative and fit-for-purpose policies and practices are important. To manage expectations around at-risk, transient and marginal land, regulation of new development or land use is also required (such as placing time limits on consents).




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Managed, co-operative and unmanaged retreats each have a role to play. But their associated practices and policy interventions must be strategically planned. To promote public safety, justice and equity, co-operation must be a central focus when managing the relocation of people.

Aotearoa New Zealand has an opportunity to foster long-term resilience in the face of climate change and many other land use challenges. Determining who manages retreats, how, and who pays is important work.

The shape of the new legislation — the processes and outcomes it encourages — will influence the lives and well-being of current and future generations.The Conversation

Christina Hanna, Lecturer, Environmental Planning, University of Waikato; Bruce Glavovic, Professor, Massey University, and Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dig this: a tiny echidna moves 8 trailer-loads of soil a year, helping tackle climate change



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David John Eldridge, UNSW

After 200 years of European farming practices, Australian soils are in poor shape – depleted of nutrients and organic matter, including carbon. This is bad news for both soil health and efforts to address global warming.

The native Australian echidna may hold part of the solution. Echidnas dig pits, furrows and depressions in the soil while foraging for ants. Our research has revealed the significant extent to which this soil “engineering” could benefit the environment.

Echidnas’ digging traps leaves and seeds in soil. This helps improve soil health, promotes plant growth and keeps carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere.

The importance of this process cannot be underestimated. By improving echidna habitat, we can significantly improve soil health and boost climate action efforts.

An echidna
Echidnas can help improve soil health.
Shutterstock

Nature’s excavators

Many animals improve soil health through extensive digging. These “ecosystem engineers” provide a service that benefits not only soils, but plants and other organisms.

In Australia, most of our digging animals are either extinct, restricted or threatened. But not so the echidna, which is still relatively common in most habitats across large areas of the continent.

Echidnas are prolific diggers. Our long-term monitoring at Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Scotia Sanctuary, in southwest New South Wales, suggests one echidna moves about seven tonnes – about eight trailer loads – of soil every year.

Soil depressions left by echidnas can be up to 50cm wide and 15cm deep. When ants are scarce, such as at highly degraded sites, echidnas dig deeper to find termites, making even larger pits.

This earth-moving capacity unwittingly provides another critically important function: matchmaking between seeds and water.

Echidna digging in soil
Echidnas’ huge digging capacity brings many environmental benefits.
Shutterstock

Playing cupid

For seeds to germinate they must come together with water and soil nutrients. Our experiment showed how echidna digging helps make that happen.

We tested whether seeds would be trapped in echidna pits after rain. We carefully marked various seeds with different coloured dyes, and placed them on the soil surface in a semi-arid woodland near Cobar, NSW, where we’d dug pits similar to those echidnas create. We then simulated a rain event.

Most seeds washed into the pits, and those that started in the pits stayed there. The experiment showed how echidna pits encourage seeds, water and nutrients to meet, giving seeds a better chance to germinate and survive in Australia’s poor soils.

The recovering pits then become plant and soil “hotspots” from which plants can spread across the landscape.

Our research has also found pits also harbour unique microbial communities and soil invertebrates. These probably play an important role in breaking down organic matter to produce soil carbon.

It’s no wonder many human efforts to restore soil imitate the natural structures constructed by animals such as echidnas.




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Plant growth in artificial pits used to regenerate degraded semi-arid soils – a method that imitates echidna pits.

Echidnas as carbon farmers

Our recent research also shows how echidna digging helps boost carbon in depleted soils.

When organic matter lies on the soil surface, it’s broken down by intense ultraviolet light which releases carbon and nitrogen into the atmosphere. But when echidnas forage, the material is buried in the soil. There it is exposed to microbes, which break down the material and release carbon and nitrogen to the soil.

This does not happen immediately. Our research suggests it takes 16-18 months for carbon levels in the pits to exceed that in bare soils.

This entire process of echidna digging, capture and buildup creates a patchwork of litter, carbon, nutrients, and plant hotspots. These fertile islands drive healthy, functional ecosystems – and will become more important as the world becomes hotter and drier.




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An echidna foraging pit with litter, seed and soil.

Harness the power of echidnas

Soil restoration can be expensive, and impractical across vast areas of land. Soil disturbance by echidnas offers a cost-effective restoration option, and this potential should be harnessed.

Australia’s echidna populations are currently not threatened. But landscape management is needed to ensure healthy echidna populations into the future.

Echidnas often shelter in hollow logs, so removing fallen timber reduces their habitat and feeding sites. Restrictions on practices such as firewood removal are needed to prevent habitat loss.

And being slow-moving, echidnas are often killed on our roads. To address this, shrubs and ground plants should be planted between patches of native bush, creating vegetation corridors so echidnas can move safely from one spot to the next.

Echidna crossing a road
Why did the echidna cross the road? Because there were no vegetation corridors.
Shutterstock

And while an echidna’s sharp spines give it some protection from natural predators, they’re less effective against introduced predators such as foxes and cats. So strategies to control these threats are also needed.

The health of Australia’s fragile environment is in serious decline. Echidnas are already providing a valuable ecosystem service – and they should be protected and nurtured to ensure this continues.




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David John Eldridge, Professor of Dryland Ecology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.