IEA: Post-Covid carbon emissions on the rise

A reminder that carbon emissions must be decoupled from economic growth to yield persistent climate improvements.
By Jeff St. John

  • Link copied to clipboard
Image credit: NASA

Last year, carbon emissions fell at the steepest rate seen since World War II. Now they’re set to mark their biggest increase since 2010.

It’s the economy, stupid.

That’s the short version of Tuesday’s report from the International Energy Agency, which found that after falling by 5.8 percent in 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions are set to increase by 4.8 percent in 2021.

Both last year’s drop and this year’s jump can be attributed to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which at its height shuttered broad swaths of economic activity that are now rebounding at a rapid pace. Global economic output is set to grow by 6 percent in 2021, representing a 2 percent increase in global GDP compared to 2019.

Image credit: IEA

And with that recovery comes a rebound in the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, move trucks and ships carrying goods, and to feed the production of cement, steel and other raw materials of economic growth.

The findings are a reminder that economic activity and carbon emissions remain tightly coupled as the world enters a decisive decade for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels that can prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

Image credit: IEA

The report comes as President Joe Biden plans to meet virtually with world leaders this week to commit the United States to an aggressive climate change program in honor of the country’s re-entry into the Paris Agreement. It also comes a day after the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization released a report warning that time is running out” to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels.

In a March statement, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol called the rebound in emissions a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide.”

The Biden administration has issued an array of executive orders to restrict the growth of fossil fuel extraction and use, and to increase federal purchases and policy support for carbon-free generation and transport. Biden’s American Jobs Plan lays out a legislative agenda to direct more than $2 trillion to support electric vehicles, building efficiency, advanced low-carbon energy technologies and an expanded power grid, as well as a goal of zeroing out electricity-sector emissions by 2035.

But Birol warned that the failure of goverments around the world to move quickly with the right energy policies…[could] put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.”

Emissions across economic sectors 

Even though carbon-free solar and wind power are now the fastest-growing sources of new generation capacity, the electricity sector is still playing a role in the projected rise in emissions. Electricity demand is set to grow at its fastest rate in more than 10 years, increasing 4.5 percent, or almost five times as much as its 2020 decline.

Renewables grew by 3 percent last year despite the drop in electricity demand, bucking the downward trends for other fuels and marking a rare success story” during the Covid pandemic, according to the IEA.

But the IEA projected a 60 percent increase in coal demand in 2021, enough to erase 80 percent of the emissions reductions achieved in 2020 and putting 2021 just 1.2 percent below 2019 emissions levels. Most of that growth will come in China and India, the world’s two biggest users of coal, with China alone set to account for half of global growth.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for developed countries to phase out coal-fired electricity by the end of this decade and halt new construction of coal power plants. He has also urged financial institutions to shift investments from coal to renewables.

At the same time, China will lead the world in renewable electricity growth in 2021, accounting for nearly half the world’s total, IEA reported. China is expected to generate over 900 terawatt-hours from solar PV and wind in 2021, followed by the the European Union at about 580 TWh and the U.S. at about 550 TWh.

Image credit: IEA

Coal use is declining rapidly in the United States and the European Union, but natural-gas use is increasing, focusing attention on the climate risks of continuing to build new gas-fired power plants and expanding the fuel’s use in heating and industry. Global natural-gas demand is expected to increase by 3.2 percent in 2021, erasing last year’s decline and pushing demand 1.3 percent above 2019 levels, the IEA reported.

Oil use isn’t rebounding as quickly so far in 2021, with road transport consumption not expected to reach pre-Covid levels until late in the year and aviation industry consumption projected to end the year 30 percent lower than in 2019.

Still, the vast majority of the world’s transportation relies on fossil fuels, and heavy industry and materials production remain highly dependent on carbon-intensive processes. Converting transport to run on carbon-free electricity or fuels and adapting industrial processes to reduce their carbon intensity will be costly and complex challenges.

(Article image courtesy of NASA

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.