Global greenhouse gas emissions rebound to record levels despite pandemic

by Felix von Geyer

Carbon dioxide emissions were two per cent higher in December 2020 than they were for the corresponding period a year earlier, the Paris-based International Energy Agency announced Monday.

This increase of 60 million tonnes (mts) over December 2019 levels reflects on a lack of clean energy policies and measures being put into place by governments despite their commitments to prevent greenhouse gas emissions exceeding a 2 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures.

A 5.8% drop in global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020 occurred through a 4% decline in energy demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oil consumption declined approximately 10% during the year, down by ‘well over 1100 million tonnes’ from 11,400 mts the previous year, according to the IEA’s report, Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020 – Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on global CO2 emissions.

The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, increased its overall 2020 CO2 emissions by 0.8% – 75 mts – over 2019 levels.

Brazil’s final quarter emissions levels reached parity for the last quarter of 2019, with a similar pattern being established in India. In contrast, US emissions contracted 10% for the year although by December CO2 emissions were on par for the same month of the previous year.

The lack of governmental measures to reduce emissions through clean energy led the IEA to conclude global CO2 emissions would only increase through 2021 as governments look to pursue economic growth without rapid and tangible action to curb emissions despite many governments’ pledges to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

“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,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Secretary.

A decline in road transport and aviation accounted for half of the 2 billion tonnes of emissions reductions during 2020, said the IEA report while 450 mts of global emissions reductions came from the electricity sector – a 3.3% decline. Similar emissions reductions of 500 mts would need to occur each year from the electricity sector to stand a chance of achieving the Paris Accord goal of keeping global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, according to the IEA report.

Solar photovoltaic and wind energy increased its share of the global energy mix by one percentage point in 2020 to comprise 20% of the total while total renewable energy now comprised 29% of global electricity generation. The increase in renewable energy has caused avoided global CO2 emissions to grow by 10% year, according to the Global Energy Review.

In May the IEA is set to release its comprehensive roadmap on clean energy transitions essential to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050.  

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