Global Carbon Pollution Reached Pre-Pandemic Levels Again by the End of 2020

Graphic: IEA

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

According to a report out on Tuesday from the International Energy Agency, while the pandemic allowed a brief reprieve from the uptick in global carbon dioxide emissions, global carbon pollution had returned to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020.  Carbon emissions in Brazil, India, and China were all up over 2019 levels. Energy-related emissions were two percent higher in December 2020 than in December 2019 due to a lack of clean energy policies and improvements in the global economy. “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,” Dr. Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in a statement.

Why this Matters:  Under the Paris Agreement, nations agreed to prevent the rise in global temperature from reaching two degrees Celsius and keeping the rise under 1.5 degrees celsius, but that won’t be possible if our emissions start going up again. During the peak of lockdowns, emissions dropped the most in history, by nearly two billion tons, due to fewer cars and planes traveling. Recovering the economy and preventing the climate crisis are not mutually exclusive — but if we are ever going to “build back better” with less carbon pollution, the time to start is now.  Otherwise, we will lose this unique “opportunity” to bring carbon pollution under control.

Global Emissions Rise Again

In the U.S., emissions in 2020 fell by 10 percent, but by the end of last year, they were almost back at pre-pandemic levels again. India and China had some of the largest spikes in emissions since 2019. In China, Carbon emissions surpassed 2019 levels in spite of lockdown and it was the only major economy to grow in 2020.  Meanwhile, India’s emissions rose above 2019 levels as they moved out of lockdown in September, and Brazil eclipsed its 2019 emissions because a rebound in road transport after May caused more demand for oil.  That said, many countries have adopted ambitious emissions goals, like China’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2060, the U.S.’ re-entry into the Paris Agreement, and the European Union’s Green New Deal. 

For the year, the 2 billion ton drop in emissions was the largest absolute decline in history — it was a 6% decline overall.  “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,” IEA’s Birol said.  “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 added.

Dr. Birol tried to express some hope as well, saying, “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.”

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