WorldGlobal CO₂ emissions will increase 5% and return to pre-pandemic levels

Global CO₂ emissions will increase 5% and return to pre-pandemic levels

Coal-fired power plant in Belchatow, Poland.Kacper Pempel (Reuters)

After the announcements and commitments of international leaders at the Glasgow climate summit for the end of this decade or mid-century, comes the stark reality of what is happening now: emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂), the main greenhouse gas , soared this year and are expected to return virtually to pre-pandemic levels. The bitter aftertaste of the sense of missed opportunity with which the climate summit began on Sunday due to the absence of a truly green recovery after the worst of covid-19 and was aggravated by the data presented on Thursday by the Global Carbon Project, a project of the group of scientists that is a reference in monitoring global CO₂ emissions. According to his calculations, the carbon dioxide emitted by the energy sector will grow 4.9% in 2021 compared to the previous year. There is only one similar precedent for such a large increase: growth of more than 5% in 2010, after the great recession.

In 2020, stoppages around the world due to the pandemic led to a 5.4% reduction in CO₂, which is why the expected growth for this year will lead to a level of emissions similar to that of 2019. Back to square one. And the problem is that the immediate goals to which most of the world’s governments have committed themselves do not lead to the necessary reduction in emissions in the coming years, but to a stagnation, at best, until 2030.

The main driver of global emissions growth this year is the increased use of coal by China’s energy and industrial sector, according to the analysis presented coinciding with COP26, which will take place in the Scottish city of Glasgow until 12 November. Emissions of this fossil fuel —the world’s leading emitter of CO₂— and natural gas have returned to pre-pandemic levels. This is not the case, for the time being, for oil, whose emissions remain below those of 2019, as the road transport and aviation sectors have not fully recovered.

The mathematician Pierre Friedlingstein, from the University of Exeter (UK) and coordinator of the study, summarizes the problem and the solution as follows: “The rapid increase in emissions as economies recover from the pandemic reinforces the need for immediate global action on climate change”. But for now, the stimulus plans to get out of the covid-19 crisis have not been the solution: less than 20% of spending made up to the first half of this year can be considered green, that is, they will serve to reduce global emissions from according to a recent United Nations study.

Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, often explains what happened with an automobile metaphor: “If you stop using a car, you stop emitting gases. But when you use it again, it kicks out because you didn’t change the engine.” When the world economy got back on track, China continued with the same trend of increasing emissions, which drags the rest of the planet: the study predicts that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will increase 4% in 2021 (in 2020 covid -19 caused them to grow only 1.4%).

Four major economies — China, the United States, the European Union and India — will be responsible in 2021 for 59% of all carbon dioxide emitted by the global energy and industrial sector. China will be by far the first, with 31% of emissions. It is followed by the US, with 14%, the EU and India, with 7% each.

In the case of the USA and the EU, the study points out that both economies will continue with the trend of progressive reduction of emissions that they already had before covid-19. In 2021, the CO₂ of the United States will grow 7.6%, but it will not regain the ground lost in the pandemic, since in 2020 it fell 10.6%. Thus, by the end of this year, US emissions will be 3.7% lower than in 2019, in line with the path taken since 2005.

The same is true for the European Union. By the end of 2021, emissions of the main greenhouse gas related to fossil fuels will have grown by 7.6%, which does not serve to offset the 10.9% drop in 2020 caused by covid-19. If Europe’s emissions in 2021 are compared to 2019, the drop will be 4.2%. EU emissions peaked in 1990 and have continued to decline since then.

The fourth big actor in this film, India, will see the levels of carbon dioxide its economy emits rise by 12.6% in 2021, after falling by 7.3% in 2020. This means that, like China, it will continue with its upward trend: the variation between 2019 and 2021 will be 4.4%.

The evolution of India, whose economic development leads to this increase in emissions, is a matter of concern among experts in the fight against climate change. But the big headache now is China, which only set as a commitment for this decade before the UN to reach its peak in emissions before 2030. US President Joe Biden also criticized the Chinese president’s refusal at the summit, Xi Jinping, to attend the meeting. “They have lost their ability to influence people around the world and those here,” Biden said of that absence and that of another leader, Russian Vladimir Putin.

For the rest of the world economy, responsible for 41% of other carbon dioxide emissions, the Global Carbon Project study predicts an increase of 2.9% for 2021, compared to a drop of 7% in 2020. Thus, the balance between 2019 and 2021 will be a decrease of 4.2%.

In terms of fuels, coal remains the main contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions, followed by natural gas and oil. The peak of coal use was reached in 2014 and for several years it was thought that a path of sustained reduction had begun. But the increase in its use in China from 2016 onwards contradicts this perception.

Despite the bad news, experts who carried out this analysis claim that covid-19 has managed to accelerate the transition to renewable energy in the world. In fact, the last decade has seen a global decarbonization process with reduced emissions in the US, the EU and a slowdown in growth in China, thanks in large part to the deployment of renewable energy. But now it’s a problem of speed, as the rise of renewable energy is not being fast enough to offset the growing demand for energy, which ends up being met mainly by fossil fuels.

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