London — Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions climbed by 2% in December 2020 from a year ago, the International Energy Agency said in a report March 2, warning that emissions are ramping back up above pre-pandemic levels in some countries.
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The modest rebound in carbon emissions toward the end of 2020 reflects a tentative economic recovery from an unprecedented year in which the governmental response to the pandemic slashed emissions for most of the year.
"The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest annual drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War, according to IEA data released today, but the overall decline of about 6% masks wide variations depending on the region and the time of year," the Paris-based agency said in a statement.
Global emissions were 60 million mt higher in December 2020 compared with the same month in 2019, the IEA's figures showed.
Major economies led the resurgence as a pickup in economic activity pushed energy demand higher and significant policy measures to boost clean energy were lacking, the IEA said.
Many economies are now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels, the agency warned.
"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," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said.
"In March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery," he said.
"But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual. This year is pivotal for international climate action – and it began with high hopes – but these latest numbers are a sharp reminder of the immense challenge we face in rapidly transforming the global energy system," said Birol.
Emissions in China increased by 0.8% in 2020, or by 75 million mt from 2019 levels, driven by the country's economic recovery over the course of the year, the IEA said. Emissions rebounded April onward, as China was the first to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions.
In the US, emissions fell by 10% in 2020, but on a monthly basis, emissions started to rebound after hitting lows in the spring. In December 2020, US emissions were close to their year-ago levels due to accelerating economic activity as well as higher natural gas prices and colder weather, which favored increased use of coal, the IEA said.
In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September 2020 as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed, the IEA said. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after an 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, the agency said.
"If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed – and in the absence of major policy changes in the world's largest economies – global emissions are likely to increase in 2021," said Birol.
"Nonetheless, there are still reasons for optimism," he said, pointing to major policy developments in 2020 and 2021.
China has set an ambitious carbon neutrality target by 2060; the new US administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement; the EU is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India's success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the UK is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November, Birol said.