Record high atmospheric CO2 in spite of COVID-19 related shutdowns

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries have issued some level of shelter in place and temporary shutdowns. With only essential services operational and significantly less transportation, the expectation is to have lower atmospheric greenhouse gases. However, new data published by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego shows that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached a monthly record of 417 parts per million (ppm), a two ppm change since last May’s reading. The difference is in line with the average annual increase. Scripps Institution of Oceanography maintains a daily record of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and is known as the Keeling Curve.

Keeling Curve | Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

According to Ralph Keeling from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, fossil fuel usage has to reduce by about ten percent. It needs to be sustained at the same level for a year to reflect a downturn in the Keeling Curve’s CO2 levels. No such event has happened in the past 62 years since the Keeling Curve record-keeping began. Not even the 2008 downturn or the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1980s could bring a significant change in the CO2 levels.

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However there is good news, pollution is down. According to NASA, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) between New York and Washington, DC, were down about 30% in March compared to the average for the last five years. This year, numbers published by CarbonBrief showed a 25 percent drop in carbon emissions in China due to the shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Major cities like Moscow, Los-Angeles, and New Delhi are smog-free.

CO2 variations are less susceptible to short term variations in fossil fuel usage; only a long term systematic reduction can bring a reduction in the atmospheric CO2 levels.

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