As the world rebounds from the pandemic, global carbon emissions from energy are forecast to jump this year by the second-biggest annual rise in history. Despite big words and political commitments, climate action seems to be left in the background.
In its Global Energy Review, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts energy-related CO2 emissions will grow by 4.8% due to a larger demand for coal, oil and gas. This would be the largest single increase since the economic recovery from the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, told The Guardian: “This is shocking and very disturbing. On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It is really disappointing.”
The closed factories and empty roads and airports we witnessed last year led to the biggest fall in demand for energy since World War Two. It was unsurprising: with the pandemic bringing parts of society to a halt, emissions were bound to drop. That lower demand triggered a drop on carbon emissions of drop around 7% in 2020, as carbon-intensive fuels such as oil and coal were the hardest hit by the restrictions.
Many hoped that we can use the changes in energy use seen last year and start a trend towards renewable energy sources and lower emissions – with campaigners around the world calling last year for a green recovery. This is why this latest report is so disappointing: it shows that despite promises, governments and companies keep betting on fossil fuels.
Global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050, if the world is to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, the UN has estimated — which would allow us to escape many of the severe effects of climate change. This means that we have a few years to change course or face the dangerous effects of climate heating.
Birol said the world is “on course to repeat the same mistakes” of the past and said to be “more disappointed” than before. He compared the current rise in emissions to what happened after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, when emissions rose 6% in 2010 as countries tried to stimulate their economies by using more fossil fuel energy.
Emerging markets and developing economies now account for more than two thirds of global CO2 emissions, while emissions in advanced economies are in a slow decline, despite an anticipated 4% rebound in 2021, the EIA said. Emissions from China and India are set to steeply increase this year due to a higher demand from all fossil fuels.
In its report, the IEA anticipated a rebound on global coal use this year mainly driven by Asia, leading to an increase in global CO2 emissions of around 640 Mt CO2. This would push emissions from coal to 14.8 Gt CO2, which is 0.4% above 2019 levels and only 350 Mt CO2 short of the global high in coal-related CO2 emissions of 2014.
CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion are also expected to increase by more than 215 Mt CO2 in 2021 to reach an all-time high of 7.35 Gt CO2, 22% of global CO2 emissions. Gas use in buildings and industry accounts for much of the trend. Demand from public and commercial building is expected to recover after a drop seen last year.
Still, it’s not all bad news. Renewable energy sources are still growing, the IEA said in its report. Wind, solar and other sustainable forms grew 3% during 2020, and they are expected to grow by another 8% this year. Overall green energy sources will provide 30% of electricity generation, the highest level since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is big news.
“What seems to be happening now is that we have a massive deployment of renewable energy, which is good for tackling climate change, but this is occurring alongside massive investments in coal and gas,” Corinne Le Quere, researcher at East Anglia University, told BBC. “Stimulus spending post-Covid-19 worldwide is still largely funding activities that lock us into high CO2 emissions for decades.”