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Despite coronavirus lockdowns, global CO2 levels hit record high

Coronavirus lockdowns have slowed carbon emissions and driven down pollution worldwide. But that doesn’t mean CO2 levels are dropping. In fact, it’s just the opposite. 

In May, the world reached record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 417 parts per million. That’s compared to 414.8 ppm from the previous May. The new number, recorded by Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was announced by scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NOAA. 

By some counts, the coronavirus lockdowns caused a 17% drop in daily global CO2 emissions. But that’s more like turning a tap to slow down water in a bathtub soon to overflow. It’s better than doing nothing, but it’s marginal compared to the disturbing rate at which CO2 continues to trend upward. 

“The [coronavirus] crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa,” said geochemist Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Oceanography CO2 program, in a statement. “What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation.”

That trajectory largely depends on world leaders, who can pass legislation attacking climate change at the root and put forth structural changes with long-lasting effects. This dynamic highlights the importance of voting for leaders who take this responsibility seriously. 

On the ground, this extra carbon is having disastrous real-time effects. These numbers come after the hottest May ever recorded.  

Temperatures over Siberia, for example, were 10 degrees Celsius above average last month. That heat can help explain the recent oil spill in the Arctic Circle, caused by melting permafrost. The resulting spill which many groups are comparing to the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, forced Russia to declare a state of emergency last week.

Around the world, carbon-fueled climate change is also causing frequent and more intense weather events. For example, Atlantic hurricane season already saw its third storm in Tropical Storm Cristobal, the earliest such a storm has ever formed.

The latest numbers show just how hard it is to move the needle on climate without structural change. And we need it fast. 

“Well-understood physics tells us that the increasing levels of greenhouse gases are heating Earth’s surface, melting ice and accelerating sea-level rise,” said Pieter Tans, senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, in the statement. “If we do not stop greenhouse gases from rising further, especially CO2, large regions of the planet will become uninhabitable.”

To ensure a livable Earth, for our generation and future generations, we must elect leaders who prioritize planetary health. This year, vote for that future — Vote Earth.