Carbon emissions rebounding to close to pre-pandemic levels, scientists warn

Global carbon pollution is set to bounce back in 2021 to almost its pre-pandemic levels, scientists have warned as the Cop26 climate talks continue.

Carbon emissions from fossil fuels fell 5.4% in 2020 from a record high the previous year due to widespread Covid-19 lockdowns.

But they are expected to rise again by 4.9% to 36.4 billion tonnes this year, or about 0.8% below 2019 levels, the annual Global Carbon Budget analysis reveals.

Researchers analysing the figures expressed surprise that carbon emissions had rebounded so quickly, especially as parts of the global economy have not fully recovered.

ENVIRONMENT Cop26 Emissions
(PA Graphics)

The possibility of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C – beyond which the worst impacts of climate-related extreme weather, rising seas, and damage to crops and wildlife will be felt – was still alive, but required action now, they said.

Emissions from coal and gas are set to rise to above-2019 levels in 2021, but pollution from oil remains below its pre-pandemic levels, according to the team, which includes researchers from the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia (UEA), the CICERO Centre for International Climate Research and Stanford University.

The rapid rise could be a temporary “sugar hit” from stimulus packages that focused on industry, such as in China where emissions continued to rise during 2020, and drove an increased use of coal.

But a further rise in emissions in 2022 to new highs cannot be ruled out if road transport and aviation return to pre-pandemic levels and coal use does not drop back again after the “over-correction” of pandemic stimulus, they said.

Professor Corinne Le Quere, from UEA, said the findings were a “reality check” on the need for rapid action by countries to deliver bigger greenhouse gas emissions cuts to keep the globally agreed 1.5C warming limit within reach.

The figures show that at current levels of emissions, the world has only 11 years left before it has used up the whole “budget” for the amount of carbon humans can pump into the atmosphere and still stay within the 1.5C limit.

And they show that the world has to cut carbon dioxide emissions by around 1.4 billion tonnes a year – compared with the 1.9 billion-tonne drop in pollution caused by the pandemic.

Prof Le Quere said the fall in emissions during the pandemic was not a structural shift, saying “it is the difference between parking your car for a year and switching to an electric vehicle”, and was never going to last.

While the latest figures were not fantastic, she said the 1.5C goal “is still alive”.

“This decrease every year of 1.4 billion tonnes is a decrease that is very large indeed but it is feasible with concerted action.”

She urged decision-makers and everyone focused on climate change not to be discouraged by the findings, but to tackle the issues one by one, first through commitments and then planning for the immediate implementation after that.

She added: “We do not yet see the full effect of the investments that were made during the pandemic and more importantly the climate policy and decisions that will be taken here in Glasgow, which could be a game-changer in the trajectory of the emissions in the next few years.”

Dr Glen Peters, from CICERO, added that there was a lot of ambition discussed at UN climate conferences, such as 2050 or 2030 targets.

“But the big question is what are governments going to do today and next year to ensure emissions don’t rise and will go down?

“A key message is focus a little bit less on 2030 and really bring home what you are implementing today and changing today that will avoid emissions going up and making them peak in 2022.”

The figures for some of the biggest emitters show that China’s emissions are projected to rise 4% compared with 2020, up 5.5% on 2019 levels, to contribute 11.1 billion tonnes or 31% of global carbon emissions.

The US will see emissions rise by an estimated 7.6% this year compared with 2020, but will still be 3.7% below 2019 levels, while the EU will see emissions rise 7.6% compared with 2020, but will still be 4.1% below 2019.

The rest of the world as a whole still has carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels that are below 2019 levels, the analysis finds.

Over the past decade, annual global emissions overall from land use change were 4.1 billion tonnes, with the amount being taken out of the atmosphere by forests and soils growing and emissions from deforestation and other issues remaining relatively stable.

This suggests a recent decline in overall emissions from changes to land use, though the figures are highly uncertain, the researchers said.