Global carbon emissions rebound to pre-lockdown levels

Global energy-related carbon emissions were higher in December than in the same month in 2019 as polluting activity rebounded from coronavirus lockdowns, a finding that must serve as a “stark warning” to policymakers, the head of the International Energy Agency said on Tuesday.

The pandemic resulted in the largest absolute drop in annual global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020, as economies gripped by the pandemic ground to a standstill, the IEA said. But the recovery in activity in the second half of 2020 and “a lack of clean energy policies” caused emissions to rise a further 2 per cent year on year in December.

“In the absence of major and immediate policy changes in the world’s largest economies, global emissions will continue to increase,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director. Governments must put clean energy policies “at the heart of their [pandemic] recovery packages”, he said, or risk a “substantial rebound of emissions” in 2021.

The findings follow a warning from the UN that the latest emissions-reduction plans set out by 75 signatories to the Paris climate agreement fell “far short” of what was needed to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet.

The UN urged governments to set more ambitious goals and channel pandemic recovery funds into policies aimed at greening economies.

Total global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020 were about 6 per cent lower than the amount released the previous year, or almost 2bn tonnes, at a total of about 32bn tonnes. Total greenhouse gas emissions are estimated at about 50bn tonnes.

But the rise of 2 per cent in December compared with the same month in 2019 was caused by a rebound in demand for fossil fuel-powered energy in the most polluting countries, including China and India. 

China was the only country to produce more annual emissions in 2020, adding a further 0.8 per cent in C02 to the atmosphere than it did in 2019. That was in spite of the 12 per cent reduction in the peak pandemic month of February over the previous year.

India’s emission levels were also not as high in the first half of 2020 as in the previous year, but rose above 2019 levels from September onwards.

In the US, annual emissions were 10 per cent less than the year before, but December levels were broadly in line with the same month in 2019.

Birol said the rise in December showed countries were “returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual”.

Policymakers must combine new regulations with incentives for switching to clean energy alternatives, he said. That would accelerate difficult but essential changes — such as retiring fossil fuel power plants early — and send an “unmistakable signal” to investors that those who fund the fossil fuel industry “risk [losing] big time”.

The lower emission levels in 2020 were most pronounced in the transport sector, as governments restricted the movement of people and goods as part of efforts to stem infection rates. Around half of the overall improvement in global emissions resulted from a reduction in the use of oil for road transport and aviation. 

Emissions from international flights were almost 45 per cent lower during the year to a level not seen since 1999 — equivalent to taking 100m cars off the road, the IEA said. However, activity has been recovering since April, and alternative cleaner fuels for aeroplanes and heavy road transport are far from being widely adopted

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Global emissions from the electricity sector were also 450m tonnes lower in 2020, due to reduced demand and an increase in power generated from renewable energy sources. However, in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming well below 2C, electricity sector emissions would need to be lowered by around 500m tonnes every year, the IEA said.

Birol said countries must take urgent, collective action to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, adding that he hoped governments committed themselves to binding emissions reduction targets at November’s international climate summit.

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