Global carbon emissions rebounded to highest level in history in 2021

The emissions rise above pre-pandemic levels has largely been driven by China’s coal use

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Tuesday 08 March 2022 21:35 GMT
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Carbon emissions rose to their highest levels in history in 2021 after the world rebounded from the Covid pandemic with heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

New analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the influential Paris-based group, found that CO2 emissions linked to energy climbed 6 per cent last year.

Coal was the driving factor in the emissions bounce, increasing energy-related CO2 emissions by over 2 billion tonnes - their largest ever annual rise in absolute terms. The rebound of emissions above pre-pandemic levels has largely been driven by China.

The IEA warned that the dismal emissions picture of 2021 must be a one-off – and the transition to clean energy be ramped up.

The United Nations Race to Zero campaign has called for halving global carbon emissions by 2030, and keeping the ambitious 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement from slipping completely out of reach.

At the current 1.1C of warming, since pre-industrial times, the world is already seeing catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis in more extreme heat, wildfires, droughts, flooding and storms.

The new figures are also a sign that the global economic recovery from Covid-19 has not been the shift to a cleaner future that global leaders had called for.

Coal accounted for over 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions growth to reach an all-time high of 15.3 billion tonnes.

The coal spike reversed any emissions reductions that happened due to less air travel and industry slowdown during the pandemic, IEA reported.

The reason for the return to coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, was in part due to the spike in gas prices in Europe and the US, along with extreme weather conditions.

And the historic emissions rise happened despite renewable power growing at record rates. Renewable energy sources and nuclear power provided a higher share of global electricity generation than coal in 2021, with wind and solar energy leading the way. However hydro generation declined due to drought, particularly in the western United States and Brazil.

In 2021 alone, China’s CO2 emissions accounted for 33 per cent of the global total, resulting largely from a sharp increase in electricity demand that leaned heavily on coal power.

CO2 emissions in India rebounded strongly in 2021, driven by growth in coal use for electricity but also a slowdown in the uptake of renewable power.

While advanced economies saw recovery from Covid in 2021, their CO2 emissions did not come back as strong, signalling a more permanent trajectory of structural decline in fossil fuels.

CO2 emissions in the United States in 2021 were 4 per cent below their 2019 level, and in the EU, they were 2.4 per cent lower.

In Japan, emissions dropped by 3.7 per cent in 2020 and rebounded by less than 1 per cent in 2021.

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