When COVID-19 disrupted the world’s economies last year, global carbon dioxide (CO.)2) emissions from the use of fossil fuels fell by two billion tons. As some of the lead scientists at the Global Carbon Project (an international group that tracks greenhouse gas emissions), we wrote about how to keep this emissions decline going, including how COVID provided opportunities to rethink transportation and why stimulus funds should be used. to use green instead of brown (fossil) energy.
We also wrote: “Such emissions reductions are huge and unprecedented, but will not last.” A car or plane (or steel mill, for that matter) parked for a year will pollute just as much when it’s finally put back into service, and it will take years to replace fossil infrastructure with cleaner technologies.
We expected fossil carbon emissions to approach pre-COVID levels as global economic activity moves closer to normal. And now, as we present in articles available online at Earth System Science Data and arXiv.org, they have.
Our new reports suggest that by the end of 2021, global fossil carbon emissions will be 36.4 billion tons of CO. will reach2, up about 4.9 percent from 2020. This recovery not only cancels out the COVID-19-related decline of 5.4 percent we reported in 2020, but brings us almost back to 2019 levels, when the world emitted 36.7 billion tons of CO2.
The rebound is troubling for several reasons. Some people hoped that last year’s record drop in emissions would be the start of the continued decline in CO2 emissions needed to keep the global average temperature increase below 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. That doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not yet, and won’t happen until more fossil fuel infrastructure is replaced by low-carbon technologies.
Because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries, we need to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels to zero – or even remove carbon from the atmosphere – to prevent the temperature from rising further. Another 36 billion tons of fossil carbon pollution this year (and every year to come) is incompatible with a safe, stable climate. Climate scientists often say, “We’re running out of time,” but it’s true. If the goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, we now have at most a decade’s worth of CO2 we could be released into the atmosphere, based on current emissions. If we don’t meet that target, we may have 30 years of current emissions before the planet warms 2 degrees.
Of all fossil fuels, the use of coal and natural gas contributed the most to the recovery of emissions this year, mainly in industry and the energy sector. Coal consumption in 2021 is expected to rise above 2019 levels to 15 billion tons of CO2. Coal emissions are now only slightly (less than 1 percent) below their 2013 peak2 emissions from natural gas use in 2021 should also rise above 2019 levels. CO only2 oil emissions remain well below 2019 levels this year at around 11.5 billion tons of CO2.
The resurgence in emissions is global in scope, but differs per country and per economic sector. Based on data to date, we expect fossil carbon emissions in Europe (EU27) and the United States to increase by 8 percent in 2021, after falling more than 10 percent in 2020. Emissions from transportation and electricity in the United States are still below 2019 levels, but industrial emissions have increased slightly. Transport and industrial emissions in Europe have also fully recovered, but the energy sector remains well below 2019 levels. India’s fossil carbon emissions will increase by nearly 13 percent this year, just above 2019 levels.
China saw an even bigger pick-up in its emissions this year. Estimated fossil emissions in 2021 are 11.2 billion tons of CO2, an increase of about 4 percent compared to emissions in 2020 and 6 percent higher than in 2019. China’s economic recovery from COVID-19 started earlier than most other countries, and the recovery in emissions also started earlier. The energy and industrial sectors have recovered the fastest. Coal use has increased significantly in China this year; its efforts to recover from COVID-19 appear to have boosted activity in industries that rely on coal-fired energy.
Some sectors worldwide will still experience suppressed emissions, although those declines will be largely offset by increased use in other parts of the global economy.
One sector of the global economy that continues to be hit hard by COVID-19 is aviation. The latest from the International Civil Aviation Organization report released in October, forecasts that air passenger numbers this year will remain 50 percent below 2019 levels. However, aviation only accounts for a few percent of global fossil carbon emissions, so even a halving this year is relatively modest in terms of absolute emissions (“just” half a billion tons of avoided carbon emissions).
In any case, there was some good news in the emissions data for 2020 and 2021. Renewable energy experienced strong growth of 10 percent globally in 2020, despite declines in both global energy consumption and the use of all three fossil fuels (2 percent, 4 percent). and 10 percent). decreases in 2020 for gas, coal and oil respectively). In addition, nearly two dozen countries that contribute about a quarter of global fossil carbon emissions saw their emissions drop significantly in the 2010-2019 decade leading up to COVID-19. This list of countries includes the United States, Mexico, and Japan, as well as several countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Sweden. Overall, we expect fossil carbon emissions in these countries to decline further in the future.
What will happen in 2022? We cannot rule out a further increase in emissions, especially if transport returns to prepandemic levels and coal use remains close to 2021 or worse, increases further. The ultimate impact of COVID-19 on fossil carbon emissions remains uncertain and will depend on short-term economic incentives and climate policies. Fully one-third of the $15-20 trillion in global economic stimulus packages already approved worldwide will go to fossil fuels and carbon-intensive heavy industries. Here in the US, unless the Build Back Better Act is passed, very little of our stimulus spending will go to green energy and clean technology. As a result of boosting fossil fuel-based industries, CO2 emissions are likely to continue to rise.
COVID-19 demonstrated the magnitude of the emission reductions needed year after year for climate stabilization. It also showed how much cleaner our air could be in a fossil-free world. Policymakers need to redouble their efforts to shape future emissions reductions more equitably, without the economic disruption felt especially by the poor worldwide.
Like millions of people around the world, we are closely following the climate conference in Glasgow. Commitments to end deforestation could reduce five or more billion tons of CO2 pollution per year, while preserving global biodiversity. In addition, in Glasgow more than 40 countries have committed to phase out the use of coal. Notable countries missing from the list include China, India, Australia, and the United States.
All authors are members of the Global Carbon Project, an international group of scientists studying CO emissions. to follow2 and other greenhouse gases from land, oceans, industry and agriculture.