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Why Global Emissions Bounced Back In 2021

Greenhouse gas emissions are up worldwide despite big promises for carbon-cutting and a transition to renewables. Optimism around the drop in emissions throughout 2020, mainly owing to pandemic restrictions and a change in lifestyle, as well as enthusiasm around international action coming out of COP26, was perhaps misguided. While many governments and energy companies around the world have carbon-reduction and net-zero ambitions, we can expect to see high levels of carbon emissions until low-carbon energy becomes more widely available. Emissions in the U.S. rose 6.2 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 despite hopes that a shift in behavior during the pandemic would spur lasting change. Throughout the first year of the pandemic, environmental activists highlighted the drop in emissions that occurred as people began to work from home, stopped traveling so much, and as industrial operations slowed down. The idea that it was possible to make a meaningful change led activists, youths, and even governments to suggest the need for change. 

Yet, in 2021 we seem to have backtracked rapidly, with much of the world population returning to old habits. As road and air traffic picked up and operations resumed across most industries, emissions were bound to increase. For example, there was around a 10 percent increase in transport emissions in the U.S. in 2021 compared to 2020.

Kate Larsen, from the Rhodium Group that carried out the study, stated “We expected a rebound but it’s dismaying that emissions came back even faster than the overall economy.” In fact, “We aren’t just reducing the carbon intensity of the economy, we are increasing it. We are doing exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing,” she explained.

There is clearly still a long way to go and following severe oil and gas shortages last year, several countries around the world turned to coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – to bridge that gap. Despite the use of coal in the U.S. declining in recent years, coal energy production increased by 17 percent in 2021 from 2020. And this was not only the case in America. Coal production was set to hit an all-time high in 2021 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), with demand levels peaking in 2022. At present, China and India are the world’s two largest coal producers, making up two-thirds of global coal demand – a trend that is set to continue as China plans to keep investing heavily in coal production. 

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The U.K., which currently plans to phase out all coal production by 2024 and seemed to be on the right track - achieving a landmark coal-free three-day period in the summer - had to run coal plants in September to meet electricity demand. As the country faced natural gas shortages and a significant hike in prices, it shifted back to using coal to power the nation.

In relation to several of the changes we saw between 2020 and 2021, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are thought to have risen by 4.9 percent, with approximately 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere over the past year. In Europe, greenhouse gas emissions from EU countries increased by 18 percent last spring. Households contributed just under a fifth of emissions and the main culprits were transportation and heating. 

Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project stated of the trend, “We expected this rebound when the world’s economy returned close to normal.”, adding “Park your car for a year and it’s the same polluting vehicle when you start it again. Similarly, when economic activity returns, so do emissions,” he explained.

There is reason to be hopeful, however, as 2021 greenhouse gas emissions were down by 5 percent from 2019, suggesting that change may be taking place, just not at the speed many had hoped for. Across the EU, greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 31 percent between 1990 and 2020, despite a growth in population and an increase in travel. This reflects the shift in government policies to encourage emissions cuts as well as the increased investment in renewable alternatives over the last three decades. It demonstrates the potential for a shift when governments and energy companies work together towards change. 

Many governments around the world are relying on oil and gas companies to lower their emissions, increasing taxes on the sector and requiring oil majors to expand their portfolios to include low-carbon oil production and renewable energy projects. But to make meaningful change, governments, public institutions, and private players must work together to develop the renewable energy sector at the rate promised coming out of the COP26 summit. With many countries aiming for net-zero by 2050, they will have to pick up the pace of the energy transition if they hope to achieve this goal.

By Felicity Bradstock for

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More