Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy hit a record high of 36.3 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) in 2021, the International Energy Agency reported yesterday, with an “extremely rapid economic recovery” translating into higher emissions from fuel burning and industrial processes and China accounting for the largest share of the increase.
“The COVID-19 pandemic had far-reaching impacts on energy demand in 2020, reducing global CO2 emissions by 5.2%,” the Paris-based agency said. But “the rebound in 2021 more than reversed the pandemic-induced decline in emissions of 1.9 Gt experienced in 2020,” with a total increase of 2.1 gigatonnes.
In addition to “unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus” and a deeply uneven but still fast global vaccine rollout, “the recovery of energy demand in 2021 was compounded by adverse weather and energy market conditions, which led to more coal being burnt despite renewable power generation registering its largest ever annual growth,” the IEA added.
Combined with rising methane and nitrous oxide emissions and increased flaring by natural gas producers, “this new analysis shows that overall greenhouse gas emissions from energy rose to their highest ever level in 2021.”
Coal accounted for 40% of the increase, hitting an all-time high of 15.3 gigatonnes. “CO2 emissions from natural gas also rebounded well above 2019 levels to 7.5 Gt, as demand increased in all sectors,” the IEA wrote. “At 10.7 Gt, emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021.”
But global power plant emissions hit their highest level ever, with China accounting for most of the emissions increase for electricity and heat production between 2019 and 2021. Reduced coal use kept the country’s industrial emissions below their 2019 high for the second year in a row.
The IEA analysis shows higher fossil gas prices driving utilities in the United States and parts of Europe to switch back to coal, but renewable energy still outstripped coal as a source of electricity, with an increase of 8,000 terawatt-hours. Nuclear contributed another 100 TWh. Without that increased output, “the rise in global CO2 emissions in 2021 would have been 220 Mt higher,” the agency said.
The year’s “carbon-intensive growth reminiscent of 2010” was not the sustainable recovery that community and policy advocates have been demanding, and governments have been promising, with countries allocating only 40% of the investment needed for a sustainable recovery plan, the IEA added. “The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off—and that sustainable investments combined with the accelerated deployment of clean energy technologies will reduce CO2 emissions in 2022, keeping alive the possibility of reducing global CO2 emissions to net-zero by 2050.”