Greenhouse Gases Could Fall to Levels Not Seen Since WWII

power plant with emissions out of chimney
About 71 percent of greenhouse gases are produced by just 100 companies. (Photo: Paulo Resende/Shutterstock)

Clear skies ahead.

These days, you'll be forgiven for hoping those words refer to the end of a pandemic that has forced millions to hunker down indoors. But in this case, those clear skies are literal. And when we finally do step outside and take in the air, we may enjoy it that much more.

We're poised to see carbon dioxide emissions plummet to levels last experienced around World War II. That's according to the Global Carbon Project, a network of emissions experts, earth scientists and economists, that tracks greenhouse gasses and advises policymakers on the issue.

This comes on the heels of earlier observations that air pollution levels were plummeting over the first countries in lockdown, China and Italy.

Those researchers say the world's carbon output is on track to drop by more than 5% year-over-year. That would be the first time emissions have stalled since a 1.4% drop-off in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Reuters reports.

And this year, things are shaping up to be much, much better.

"Neither the fall of the Soviet Union nor the various oil or savings-and-loan crises of the past 50 years are likely to have affected emissions the way this crisis is," Rob Jackson, who chairs the Global Carbon Project, tells the news agency.

Indeed, the rise of COVID-19 may inadvertently spark the environmental turnaround scientists say we desperately need.

Greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide, methane and other emissions caused by burning fossil fuels — have increased global temperatures by at least 1 degree C since pre-industrial times.

Holding that increase to below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels may prove critical if we're going to avoid the worst climate-change-related catastrophes. But where there may be a lack of political will, it seems other, unfortunate, forces may yet drag us toward that goal.

"Economic recessions and resulting declines in energy use and population shifts can drive dramatic reductions in environmental impacts," ecologist Kevin Rose tells Newsweek. "Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, have declined during many past recessions as energy-intensive economic activities slow. Quarantine protocols may also have a deep, but short-term, impact on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, as fewer people are traveling and fewer businesses are operating."

A temporary state of affairs

Silver linings are hard to come by these days. And most of the good news we're hearing these days have significant strings attached. Wildlife, for example, is flourishing amid the pandemic. But we know those dolphins off the Italian coast and orcas showing up near Vancouver and wild turkeys on the streets of Oakland will retreat again, once humans venture out of their homes.

Likewise, those clear skies won't last long, once factories churn to life, cars fill up the highways again and economies spring back to life.

"This drop is not due to structural changes so as soon as confinement ends, I expect the emissions will go back close to where they were," Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in eastern England, tells Reuters.

At the very least, we may have something more to look forward to when we finally venture outside. In fact, when that day come, the world may seem a very different place. For a little while, at least.