Global energy-related CO2 emissions were 2 per cent higher in December 2020 than in the same month a year earlier, according to data published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), driven by economic recovery and a lack of clean energy policies.
The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest annual drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War, according to IEA data, but the overall decline of about 6 per cent masks wide variations depending on the region and the time of year.
After hitting a low in April, global emissions rebounded strongly and rose above 2019 levels in December. The latest data show that global emissions were 2 per cent, or 60 million tonnes, higher in December 2020 than they were in the same month a year earlier.
“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.”
He recalled that in March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery.
“But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual,” Dr Birol continued. “This year is pivotal for international climate action – and it began with high hopes – but these latest numbers are a sharp reminder of the immense challenge we face in rapidly transforming the global energy system.”
The 2020 trends underscore the challenge of curbing emissions while ensuring economic growth and energy security. Amid a growing number of pledges by countries and companies to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, the rebound in emissions shows what is likely to happen if those ambitions are not met with rapid and tangible action.
Emissions in China for the whole of 2020 increased by 0.8 per cent, or 75 million tonnes, from 2019 levels driven by China’s economic recovery over the course of the year. In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. Emissions in the United States fell by 10 per cent in 2020, but on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back.
“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,” Dr Birol said. “Nonetheless, there are still reasons for optimism. China has set an ambitious carbon-neutrality target; the new US administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and is putting climate at the heart of its policy-making; the European Union is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India’s stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the United Kingdom is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November.”
Global emissions plunged by almost 2 billion tonnes in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history. Most of this was due to the lower use of oil for road transport and aviation. As travel and economic activities pick up around the world, oil consumption and its emissions are rising again and the record increase in sales of electric vehicles is insufficient to offset the growth in emissions caused by the uptick in road traffic around the world.
Furthermore, global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tonnes in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind. However, for the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year.
In order to show a sustainable path forward, the IEA will publish the world’s first comprehensive roadmap for the energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.