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Coronavirus Economic Recovery to Drive Second-Highest CO2 Emissions Jump on Record, IEA Warns

Energy
Coronavirus Economic Recovery to Drive Second-Highest CO2 Emissions Jump on Record, IEA Warns
The coal-fired Huaneng Power Plant in Huai 'an City, Jiangsu Province, China on Sept. 13, 2020. Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

One of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic was the record drop in greenhouse gas emissions following national lockdowns. But that drop is set to all but reverse as economies begin to recover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned Tuesday.


Overall energy demand is expected to rise 4.6 percent this year compared to 2020 and 0.5 percent compared to 2019, according to the IEA's Global Energy Review 2021. Demand for fossil fuels is expected to jump to such an extent that emissions will rise by nearly five percent in 2021. This will reverse 80 percent of the emissions decline reported in 2020, to end emissions just 1.2 percent below 2019 emissions levels. Because the lockdown saw the biggest drop in energy demand since World War II, the projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions will still be the second-highest on record, BBC News pointed out.

"This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement reported by AFP.

Birol said much of that increase was being driven by the resurgence of coal use. In fact, coal demand is expected to increase by 60 percent more than all forms of renewable energy, according to the report. Overall coal demand is expected to increase by 4.5 percent in 2021. More than 80 percent of that growth is in Asia, and more than 50 percent is in China. While coal use is expected to increase in the U.S. and Europe as well, it will remain far below pre-pandemic levels. Still, global coal use is expected to rise to nearly its 2014 peak, BBC News reported.

Natural gas demand is also expected to rise by 3.2 percent in 2021, to put it more than one percent above 2019 levels, according to the report.

There are, however, two bright spots in the report from a climate perspective. The first is that oil demand, while up 6.2 percent from 2020, is still expected to remain around 3 percent below 2019 levels. This is because oil use for ground transportation is not expected to recover until the end of 2021, and oil use for air travel is expected to remain at 20 percent below 2019 levels by December of 2021.

"A full return to pre-crisis oil demand levels would have pushed up CO2 emissions a further 1.5%, putting them well above 2019 levels," the report authors wrote.

The second bright spot is that renewable energy demand is set to rise in all sectors in 2021. In power, where its rise is the greatest, it is set to increase by more than eight percent. This is "the largest year-on-year growth on record in absolute terms," the report authors wrote.

Renewable energy will provide 30 percent of electricity overall, BBC News reported, which is the highest percentage since the industrial revolution. The problem is that the increase in renewables is running parallel to an increase in fossil fuels in some places. China, for example, is also expected to account for almost half of the rise in renewable electricity.

"As we have seen at the country-level in the past 15 years, the countries that succeed to cut their emissions are those where renewable energy replaces fossil energy," energy expert and University of East Anglia professor Corinne Le Quéré told BBC News. "What seems to be happening now is that we have a massive deployment of renewable energy, which is good for tackling climate change, but this is occurring alongside massive investments in coal and gas. Stimulus spending post-Covid-19 worldwide is still largely funding activities that lock us into high CO2 emissions for decades."

To address this issue, Birol called on the world leaders gathering for U.S. President Joe Biden's climate summit Thursday and Friday to pledge additional action before November's UN Climate Change Conference, according to AFP.

"Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022," said Birol.

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