Soaring carbon emissions this year are on track to reverse a big chunk of last year’s sharp reduction, which some climate researchers had hoped might be an environmental silver lining of the pandemic.
Covid-19 shut many of the world’s biggest economies—grounding planes, closing factories and keeping drivers off the road. That sent demand for carbon-dioxide-emitting fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas tumbling. The International Energy Agency estimates emissions fell 5.8% in 2020, the first time emissions had dropped since 2015 and the steepest percentage decline since World War II.
Now, they are climbing again sharply. The IEA, in a report published Tuesday, said emissions are expected to jump 4.8% this year, the biggest annual gain since 2010’s record-setting increase, when the world was bouncing back from the global economic crisis.
Governments are trying to restart economies amid global vaccination rollouts. In some big countries, such as the U.S. and China, demand is coming back strongly. As parts of the global economy rev back up, countries are turning back to carbon-intensive fuels—though in markedly different degrees depending on economic development.
Developing countries such as China will help drive overall global energy demand above 2019 levels this year, according to the IEA, a Paris-based energy watchdog. It cited a surge in coal use in the developing world, in particular, for a big chunk of the forecast increase in emissions. China alone will account for more than 50% of 2021’s new coal use, the agency said.
Oil demand, while still expected to remain about 3% below 2019 levels this year, should exceed that level in 2023, the agency said in October, before peaking around 2030.
Still, the IEA forecast a net reduction of about 400 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions over 2020 and 2021. It said net emissions fell 1.9 billion tons last year and, based on its projections, will rise 1.5 billion tons this year.
The developed world’s energy mix continues to move toward less-carbon-intensive fuels. The U.S. consumed more renewable energy than coal last year, for the first time since the 1880s. Wood was historically the top source of U.S. energy, and the only commercial-scale source, until hydroelectric power plants emerged in the country toward the end of the 19th century. In Europe, the IEA said, coal-fired electricity generation “is disappearing or becoming negligible” in an increasing number of countries there.
The agency previously forecast a muted bounceback in oil and gasoline demand in the developed world, but the expected gains in coal demand by the developing world will dent the gains made in lower emissions on a global scale.
The big drop in emissions in 2020 was indicative of a painful economic rout in many places. While many economists and climate researchers predicted emissions would kick back in once economic growth started to return, many others were also banking on essentially a one-time down payment that might make meeting previous commitments to reduce emissions easier in years to come.
The resurgence in carbon emissions shows “that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said
the IEA’s executive director. “Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022.”
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The Paris Agreement, which the Biden administration rejoined in February, calls for cutting emissions enough to keep temperatures less than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
“We’ve been seeing a growing gap between the ambition of officials in setting climate targets on the one hand, and willingness to impose those policies to achieve them on the other,” said
a former adviser in the George W. Bush administration and president of consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group.
President Biden is preparing to hold a virtual climate summit this week, inviting 40 world leaders, including Russian President
and Chinese President
The administration plans to use the summit to set a new U.S. goal of reducing its emissions.
The Paris accords treat China, the world’s second-largest economy, as a developing country, thus granting it more time to lower its emissions. The president recently dispatched climate envoy John Kerry to China, where the two sides discussed the possibility of China enhancing climate commitments. Beijing has promised to reach peak carbon emissions before 2030.
Write to David Hodari at David.Hodari@dowjones.com
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