Energy-related CO2 emissions hit record high as the world counts on coal
Though the lockdowns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic led to some extreme dips in global carbon emissions, new analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown how insignificant they may be in the grand scheme of things. Global emissions from energy rose a record six percent in 2021, as the world leaned heavily on coal to bounce back from the economic crisis.
The dramatic decline in CO2 emissions seen in the early parts of 2020 as the pandemic took hold and ground many elements of society to a halt led some to hope the recovery would be a sustainable one. Renewable energy generation did in fact experience its largest ever growth last year, hitting a record high of more than 8,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) and combining with nuclear power to provide a larger share of global electricity generation than coal.
Despite this growth in renewables, coal remained a huge contributor to the massive growth seen in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, which hit 36.3 billion tonnes, the highest level on record. The observed increase of more than two billion tons is also the largest on record. This more than cancels out the decline seen related to the pandemic in the year previous, according to the IEA.
The agency reports that 40 percent of that growth came from coal, which accounted for an all-time high of 15.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. It says part of the reason for this were record high natural gas prices, leading to more coal being burned instead. Emissions from oil, meanwhile, remained well below their pre-pandemic levels, as the crisis continued to impact transportation through 2021, namely the aviation sector.
According to the IEA, the rebounding effect was mostly driven by China, which leaned heavily on the use of coal power to meet its electricity demands that grew 10 percent in 2021. This 700-TWh increase in demand is the country's largest ever, with its overall emissions surpassing 11.9 billion tonnes in 2021, which the agency says makes up 33 percent of the global total. China also had its largest ever increase in renewable power output in 2021.
Though we've seen momentary dips in global carbon emissions during the pandemic, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere only continues to rise. Record levels were reported in the midst of the pandemic's early stages in 2020, and again in 2021, indicating the fleeting declines have done little to slow the trend. Meanwhile, emissions of the particularly potent greenhouse gas, methane, also continue to rise.
"The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off – and that an accelerated energy transition contributes to global energy security and lower energy prices for consumers," the IEA said in a statement.