Global carbon emissions rebound close to pre-COVID levels • Earth.com
11-04-2021

Global carbon emissions rebound close to pre-COVID levels

The Global Carbon Project has recently published its latest update. The most recent report finds that, although carbon emissions dropped by 5.4 percent in 2020 amid COVID lockdowns, an increase of 4.9 percent is predicted this year. 

This rate of activity will nearly return emissions to pre-COVID levels, equating to the release of 36.4 billion tons of carbon in 2021. Emissions from coal and gas use are set to grow more in 2021 than they fell in 2020, but emissions from oil use remain below the 2019 levels.

In the United States and European Union, both major emitters of CO2, emissions were decreasing prior to the start of the COVID pandemic. This trend is set to continue for 2021. 

India’s pre-COVID trend of increasing emissions is also set to continue. However, in China the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked further growth in CO2 emissions, pushed by the power and industry sectors.

The research team – including scientists from the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia (UEA), CICERO and Stanford University – say a further rise in emissions in 2022 cannot be ruled out if road transport and aviation return to pre-pandemic levels and coal use is stable.

The report contains the following analysis of major emitters (the figures below exclude international transport, particularly aviation):

  • China: Emissions are projected to rise 4 percent compared to 2020, reaching 5.5 percent above 2019 – a total of 11.1 billion tons CO2, 31 percent of global emissions.
  • USA: Emissions are projected to rise 7.6 percent compared to 2020, reaching 3.7 percent below 2019 – a total of 5.1 billion tons CO2, 14 percent of global emissions.
  • EU27: Emissions are projected to rise 7.6 percent compared to 2020, reaching 4.2 percent below 2019 – a total of 2.8 billion tons CO2, 7 percent of global emissions.
  • India: Emissions are projected to rise 12.6 percent compared to 2020, reaching 4.4 percent above 2019 – a total of 2.7 billion tons CO2, 7 percent of global emissions.

For the rest of the world taken as a whole, fossil CO2 emissions remain below 2019 levels.

“The rapid rebound in emissions as economies recover from the pandemic reinforces the need for immediate global action on climate change,” said Professor Pierre Friedlingstein of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, who led the study.

“The rebound in global fossil CO2 emissions in 2021 reflects a return towards the pre-COVID fossil-based economy. Investments in the green economy in post-COVID recovery plans of some countries have been insufficient so far, on their own, to avoid a substantial return close to pre-Covid emissions.”

“It will take some time to see the full effect of the COVID-related disruptions on global CO2 emissions,” said Professor Corinne Le Quéré. “A lot of progress has been made in decarbonising global energy since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, plus renewables is the only energy source that continued to grow during the pandemic.”

“New investments and strong climate policy now need to support the green economy much more systematically and push fossil fuels out of the equation.”   

The publication coincides with the meeting of the world’s leaders at COP26 in Glasgow, where they will address the climate crisis and try to commit to plans for a way forward. 

Based on the findings in the report, atmospheric CO2 concentration is projected to increase by 2.0 parts per million (ppm) in 2021 to reach 415 ppm averaged over the year, which represents a lower growth compared to recent years due to La Niña conditions in 2021.

If the world is to have a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, 1.7°C and 2°C, the researchers estimate the remaining “carbon budget” that can still be pumped out has now shrunk to 420 billion tons, 770 billion tons and 1,270 billion tons respectively. This is equivalent to a timeframe of 11, 20 and 32 years at the 2021 emission levels.

Reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 entails cutting global CO2 emissions by about 1.4 billion tons each year on average,” said Professor Friedlingstein. “Emissions fell by 1.9 billion tons in 2020 – so, to achieve net zero by 2050, we must cut emissions every year by an amount comparable to that seen during COVID.”

“This highlights the scale of the action that is now required, and hence the importance of the COP26 discussions,” said Friedlingstein.

The 16th annual Global Carbon Budget is published as a preprint in the journal Earth System Science Data, where it is currently open for review. The data presented on carbon dioxide emissions and how they are partitioned between land, atmosphere and ocean, are updated every year to keep track of CO2 levels globally. 

By Alison Bosman, Earth.com Staff Writer

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