Growing demand for coal in 2021 is set to wipe out most of the drop in carbon emissions that was caused when the world ground to a halt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the International Energy Agency predicts.
The organization expects global energy-related CO2 emissions to rise by 1.5 billion tonnes to 33 billion tonnes this year, an increase of almost 5% over 2020, as vaccinations and widespread fiscal stimulus packages are boosting economic growth and causing energy demand to rebound. The surge in carbon emissions would be the second-largest in history and the largest annual increase since the carbon-intensive recovery from the global financial crisis in 2010, according to the IEA.
Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, framed the findings as an urgent call to action for global leaders coming together for a climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 22-23, which will see the U.S. unveil a stronger national emissions reduction target. The meeting, which the White House says includes 17 countries responsible for approximately 80% of global emissions, is also supposed to spur more ambitious action from other countries ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
"This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate," Birol said in an April 20 statement. "Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022."
The IEA's forecast, part of the organization's annual global energy review, is based on the latest national data as well as real-time analysis of economic growth trends and new energy projects that are set to come online around the world.
The IEA said the key driver for the emissions surge is an expected 4.5% rise in coal demand, which is set to surpass its 2019 level and approach an all-time high set in 2014. In December 2020, the IEA estimated worldwide coal generation would fall 5% in 2020, marking the largest annual decrease on record.
Asia is expected to account for more than 80% of global coal demand growth, with more than 50% of that from China alone. While coal demand in the U.S. and EU is also bouncing back, the report said it will remain well below precrisis levels.
Gas, renewables also growing
The IEA expects that rising emissions in 2021 will reverse 80% of last year's decline caused by the pandemic, which saw power plants reduce their output as electricity demand from industry slowed dramatically.
Environmentalists and groups such as the IEA have cautioned since the early days of the pandemic that any emissions drop would be temporary, urging governments to avoid boosting polluting sectors with trillions in recovery spending and pour money into renewable energy and other sustainable projects instead.
An analysis published in February by Vivid Economics, a U.K.-based think tank, found that less than $1.8 trillion of $14.9 trillion in stimulus spending announced by G-20 countries and 10 other economies has been "green," with roughly a third spent on "environmentally intensive" sectors that tend to have a negative impact on climate, biodiversity or local air quality.
Overall energy demand is forecast to grow by 4.6% in 2021, including significant growth in all fossil fuels, the IEA said. Natural gas demand is expected to grow by 3.2% and surpass 2019 levels by more than 1%, while oil demand is expected to grow by 6.2% but stay below its 2019 peak due to a prolonged dip in road and air traffic.
Electricity demand is set to grow by 4.5% overall, an increase almost five times greater than the decline in 2020. The IEA said almost 80% of the projected growth will come from emerging-market and developing economies.
Coal's rebound is also set to eclipse growth in renewable energy, despite accelerating demand for wind and solar power that will see both technologies mark their biggest annual increases in history — 17% and 18%, respectively. Power production from renewables overall is forecast to increase by more than 8%.
That means renewables are set to make up 30% of power generation across the world in 2021, up from less than 27% in 2019. China will again account for almost half of the growth, followed by the U.S., the EU and India.