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Second largest increase in annual carbon emissions predicted for 2021

Jordan O'Brien

Jordan O'Brien

Contributing Editor
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Carbon Emissions

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting that a post-pandemic boom will lead to the second largest increase in annual carbon emissions since records began. 

According to its latest report, the IEA expects global energy-related CO2 emissions will rise by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, which will still be lower than the total output in 2019, but significantly more than 2020.

The reason behind the bumper year is the ongoing recovery from Covid-19. Energy demand plummeted in 2020 as many countries locked down shops, restaurants and offices to cope with rising cases of Covid-19. Many of those places are reopening in 2021, which is basically reversing last year’s decline. 

While countries are still committed to lowering their carbon footprint, 2021 will see the largest annual rise in emissions since 2010, during the carbon-intensive recovery from the global financial crisis. 

In fact, the IEA’s Global Energy Review 2021 estimates that CO2 emissions will increase by almost 5% this year to 33 billion tonnes, based on the latest national data from around the world as well as real-time analysis of economic growth trends and new energy projects that are set to come online. 

The key driver is coal demand, which is set to grow by 4.5%, surpassing its 2019 level and approaching its all-time peak from 2014, with the electricity sector accounting for three-quarters of this increase.

More renewable energy is coming online 

Most worrying about this trend is that the expected rise in coal use dwarfs that of renewables by almost 60%, despite accelerating demand for renewables. More than 80% of the projected growth in coal demand in 2021 is set to come from Asia, led by China. Coal use in the United States and the European Union is also on course to increase but will remain well below pre-crisis levels.

China is ambitious about renewable energy, with the country nipping at the UK’s heels when it comes to offshore renewable installations, but it is still heavily reliant on coal to power its huge economy. 

It’s not all bad news for renewables, however. Electricity generation from renewables is set to leap by over 8% in 2021, accounting for more than half of the increase in overall electricity supply worldwide. The biggest contribution to that growth comes from solar and wind, which are on track for their largest annual rise in history. Electricity generation from wind is projected to grow by 275 TWh, or around 17%, from last year. Electricity generation from solar PV is expected to increase by 145 TWh, up almost 18% from last year. Their combined output is on track to reach more than 2 800 TWh in 2021.

Renewables are set to provide 30% of electricity generation worldwide in 2021, their biggest share of the power mix since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and up from less than 27% in 2019. China is expected to account for almost half of the global increase in electricity generation from renewables, followed by the United States, the European Union and India.

“Global carbon emissions are set to jump by 1.5 billion tonnes this year – driven by the resurgence of coal use in the power sector. This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. 

“Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022. The Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by US President Joe Biden this week is a critical moment to commit to clear and immediate action ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.”

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