The Covid-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War, according to IEA data released today.
Major economies led the resurgence as a pick-up in economic activity pushed energy demand higher and significant policies measures to boost clean energy were lacking. Many economies are now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels.
“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. 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,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.
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 percent, or 75 million tons, from 2019 levels driven by China’s economic recovery over the course of the year. China was the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions, prompting its economic activity and emissions to rebound from April onward. China was the only major economy that grew in 2020.
In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after the April low drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand in the later months of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels throughout the final quarter.
Emissions in the United States fell by 10 percent in 2020. But on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back. In December, US emissions were approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. This was the result of accelerating economic activity as well as the combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favoring an increase in coal use.
Global emissions plunged by almost 2 billion tons in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history. Most of this – around 1 billion tons, which is more than the annual emissions of Japan – was due to 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. 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.
Global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tons in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind.
For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tons would need to occur every single year. Even greater annual drops in emissions from electricity generation would be required to put the world on a path in line with warming of 1.5 °C.