Global carbon dioxide emissions have returned to pre-COVID levels despite 2020 triggering the largest annual drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has issued data which has warned the headline figure of an overall decline of about 6% masks wide variations depending on the region and the time of year. It added that it is likely that global emission will increase for 2021, although there was cause for optimism.
It reported after hitting a low in April, global emissions rebounded strongly and rose above 2019 levels in December. The latest data showed that global emissions were 2%, or 60 million tonnes, higher in December 2020 than they were in the same month a year earlier. Major economies led the resurgence as a pick-up in economic activity pushed energy demand higher and significant policies measures to boost clean energy were lacking. Many economies are now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels.
“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide. If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “In March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery. But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual. This year is pivotal for international climate action – and it began with high hopes – but these latest numbers are a sharp reminder of the immense challenge we face in rapidly transforming the global energy system.”
The IEA warned the 2020 trends underscore the challenge of curbing emissions while ensuring economic growth and energy security. Amid a growing number of pledges by countries and companies to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, the rebound in emissions shows what is likely to happen if those ambitions are not met with rapid and tangible action.
Emissions in China for the whole of 2020 increased by 0.8%, or 75 million tonnes, from 2019 levels driven by China’s economic recovery over the course of the year. China was the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions, prompting its economic activity and emissions to rebound from April onward. China was the only major economy that grew in 2020.
In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after the April low drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand in the later months of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels throughout the final quarter.
Emissions in the United States fell by 10% in 2020. But on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back. In December, US emissions were approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. This was the result of accelerating economic activity as well as the combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favouring an increase in coal use.
“If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed – and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies – global emissions are likely to increase in 2021,” Dr Birol said. “Nonetheless, there are still reasons for optimism. China has set an ambitious carbon-neutrality target; the new US administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and is putting climate at the heart of its policy-making; the European Union is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India’s stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the United Kingdom is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November.”
The IFA added global emissions plunged by almost 2 billion tonnes in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history. Most of this – around 1 billion tonnes, which is more than the annual emissions of Japan – was due to lower use of oil for road transport and aviation.
“As travel and economic activities pick up around the world, oil consumption and its emissions are rising again,” it warned. “The record increase in sales of electric vehicles is insufficient to offset the growth in emissions caused by the uptick in road traffic around the world.”
Global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tonnes in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind.
“For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year. Even greater annual drops in emissions from electricity generation would be required to put the world on a path in line with warming of 1.5 °C,” the IFA warned.