The Covid-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest annual drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War, according to IEA data released today, but the overall decline of about 6% masks wide variations depending on the region and the time of year.
After hitting a low in April, global emissions rebounded strongly and rose above 2019 levels in December. The latest data show that global emissions were 2%, or 60 million tonnes, higher in December 2020 than they were in the same month a year earlier. Major economies led the resurgence as a pick-up in economic activity pushed energy demand higher and significant policies measures to boost clean energy were lacking. Many economies are now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels.
“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide. If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “In March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery. But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual. This year is pivotal for international climate action – and it began with high hopes – but these latest numbers are a sharp reminder of the immense challenge we face in rapidly transforming the global energy system.”
The 2020 trends underscore the challenge of curbing emissions while ensuring economic growth and energy security. Amid a growing number of pledges by countries and companies to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, the rebound in emissions shows what is likely to happen if those ambitions are not met with rapid and tangible action.
Emissions in China for the whole of 2020 increased by 0.8%, or 75 million tonnes, from 2019 levels driven by China’s economic recovery over the course of the year. China was the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions, prompting its economic activity and emissions to rebound from April onward. China was the only major economy that grew in 2020.
In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after the April low drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand in the later months of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels throughout the final quarter.
Emissions in the United States fell by 10% in 2020. But on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back. In December, US emissions were approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. This was the result of accelerating economic activity as well as the combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favouring an increase in coal use.
“If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed – and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies – global emissions are likely to increase in 2021,” Dr Birol said. “Nonetheless, there are still reasons for optimism. China has set an ambitious carbon-neutrality target; the new US administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and is putting climate at the heart of its policy-making; the European Union is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India’s stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the United Kingdom is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November.”
Global emissions plunged by almost 2 billion tonnes in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history. Most of this – around 1 billion tonnes, which is more than the annual emissions of Japan – was due to lower use of oil for road transport and aviation. As travel and economic activities pick up around the world, oil consumption and its emissions are rising again. The record increase in sales of electric vehicles is insufficient to offset the growth in emissions caused by the uptick in road traffic around the world.
Global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tonnes in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind. For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year. Even greater annual drops in emissions from electricity generation would be required to put the world on a path in line with warming of 1.5 °C.
In order to show a sustainable path forward, the IEA will publish on 18 May the world’s first comprehensive roadmap for the energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. As part of its focus on leading clean energy transitions worldwide, the IEA is working with the United Kingdom’s COP26 Presidency to bring together heads of government and ministers at the IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit on 31 March to step up international efforts to turn net zero pledges into concrete energy policies and actions.
In April, the IEA will release its Global Energy Review 2021, which will examine this year’s emerging trends in global energy demand and CO2 emissions.
Green transformation will rival industrial revolution
The transition to a global economic model which will slow down climate change and create jobs will be the “biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution” according to John Kerry, the US climate envoy.
They agreed that a “green and resilient recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic is possible but economic growth globally is likely to be slow and uneven.
‘No bank will fund a new coal plant’
John Kerry: There are many ways that we can address the climate challenge in America. President Biden has put a $2 trillion plan on the table, which will result in 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles being built in the country, thousands of electric buses, including school buses, and a target of 100 per cent carbon-free power, by 2035.
All these measures will generate actions in the private sector. The decisions of some of the largest financial institutions in the world are being driven by environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, and trillions of dollars is going to be invested in this new sector to avoid sheer catastrophe. We’re way behind, but we believe that this is going to be the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution.
In Europe, no bank or financial institution or even private source will fund a coal-fired power plant, but we have to move away from coal faster. Many old coal-fired plants are operating at less than 50 per cent efficiency. They are losing money and are not even sending energy to the main grid. They could be phased out over a period of time. Gas will, to some degree, be a bridge fuel [to renewables].
The United States could help mobilize finance to reduce risk, and then bring more money to the table for a commercial investment in alternative fuel sources.
Kristalina Georgieva: At the IMF we have identified three pillars in the transition to a low-carbon economy. First of all, put a price on all carbon emissions. Today only 23 per cent of emissions are being priced. The average price is $2 per ton. By 2030, we need to be at $75 a ton.
Second, funding is needed for public investment in green infrastructure. The IMF can support countries in this regard. Five per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) invested now, would generate an additional 0.7 per cent growth every year. This means that the investment would pay for itself within 15 years and create at least 12 million net jobs.
The third, hugely important pillar, is to lessen the impact on those who are currently employed in the high carbon economy. For example, there must be a just transition for miners, so that they can have benefit from new job opportunities. If we raise revenues from carbon pricing, some of that money must be used to provide a buffer, to soften the pressure on those businesses that need to move away from carbon dependency. This is doable, and it must be done.
China and the US
John Kerry : Right now, China is saying that they are going to reach peak emissions by 2030, and that they may be able to reach that target earlier, maybe by 2025. The problem is that the current models shows China peaking but then basically staying at a plateau, rather than sufficiently lowering emissions.
Some 30 per cent of all the emissions on the planet are produced by China, so if we don’t see a reduction between 2020 and 2030, we lose the capacity to keep the global temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and we lose the capacity to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Every nation must work together on this. If the United States went to zero emissions tomorrow, it wouldn’t make the kind of difference we need because we all have to reduce at the same time. That’s the struggle we’re facing.
China obviously has a need to continue to grow and to develop. We want that, and we’re not begrudging that. We want to work with China and other countries to make sure that they don’t make the mistakes that we made, and that we work together to develop new technologies such as hydrogen fuel, and biofuels for aircraft.
Doing nothing is too expensive
John Kerry: The United States is the number two emitter in the world. We need to do a better job at reducing emissions on an accelerated basis. President Biden is stepping up to do that. He’s hosting a virtual climate summit in April, he has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and he has put together a $2 trillion piece of infrastructure legislation.
Climate action means jobs, whether in the creation of new energy sources, or transitioning out of the existing ones, building new cars or retrofitting homes. Those are jobs for workers in all countries. We should embrace this.
The economists have warned us again and again: doing nothing is more expensive to our citizens, our taxpayers, than responding to the climate crisis. We spent $365 billion cleaning up after three storms a couple of years ago, but we haven’t invested the $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund that would have provided resilience and adaptation to climate change, and prevented some of that damage from being done. We’re just not making the right choices.
Kristalina Georgieva: We’ve already started offering a helping hand, especially to countries devastated by natural disasters. We have put measures in place to help countries to be in a better position when disaster hits. For example, we are discussing with our membership a provision that will make $650 billion available for countries to not only take the necessary measures to deal with the pandemic and its impact, but also to take on the investments necessary for transformation of their economy.
The urgency to act is evident, and vivid: over the last six months, 10 million people were displaced by floods and other forms of natural disasters. Fast-forward to a world in which there are more climate-related disasters, and more migration.
We have a chance to take advantage of a transformation for growth and for jobs. But we are also under tremendous pressure to prevent a future that would be bleak for those we love the most: our children and grandchildren.
Environmental rights, here and now: working for change in 2021
COVID-19 hasn’t only raised concern for health. It has also stimulated thought and debate around issues of human rights – including those related to the environment. After all, the emergence of the zoonotic disease has demonstrated that the health of people and planet are one and the same.
Pollution claims millions of lives every year. But unlike COVID-19, which has drawn rapid and dramatic attention, pollution is widely dismissed as unavoidable; as a consequence of development and daily life, beyond anyone’s control.
“Environmental rights empower individuals, people, and peoples, and help humanity in addressing the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” said Arnold Kreilhuber, Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division. “Global recognition of the right to a healthy environment is a unique opportunity to address these pertinent environmental challenges, and to elevate the position of rights-holders in order to ensure that the exercise of these vital rights is available to all.”
This could mean using the law to hold governments and decision-makers to account, or using our purchasing power to influence production trends and business owners. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the world in which we live can mean the difference between life and death. Now is the time to claim the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Says Ben Schachter, Environment and Climate Change Focal Point at the UN Human Rights Office, “States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights for all including the rights to participation, access to information and access to justice in environmental matters. These and other human rights empower all people to play an active role in efforts to preserve the environment for present and future generations. We can change the world by exercising our rights and working together to promote informed decision-making about the environment.”
It has become clear in this time of global pandemic that quality information matters and can inform decisions with the power to change the world swiftly and dramatically. And on the other hand, misinformation can do great harm.
Transformational change begins with education – building a knowledge base and sharing accurate, science-based information. On 15 April (3pmUTC/4pmCEST), the UNEP Law Division, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Wikimedia Foundation will host an online event, exploring the human right to a healthy environment.
The event will launch the 2021 #WikiForHumanRights campaign – a call for volunteers to improve the content on Wikipedia, relating to human rights, environmental health, and the range of communities impacted by the convergent environmental crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. The campaign will see communities all over the world populate, strengthen, and translate articles on Wikipedia relating to the right to a healthy environment.
The 90-minute launch event will consider the connection between environmental issues and human rights, how communities are affected by environmental harm and ways for individual and collaborative efforts to create positive change, with live translation available in English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese.
Muscovites Apply for 700 Trees to be Planted in Honor of Their Newborn Children
The Our Tree project launched two years ago by Moscow’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Nature Management and Environmental Protection has quickly become very popular among Muscovites. Thanks to this annual campaign, city residents can now celebrate the happiest event in their family life – the birth of a child – by giving their baby a unique gift – their own personal tree.
Any parent who is permanently resident in Moscow can apply for a tree within three years of the birth of their child. To do so, they need only have an account on the mos.ru website. On average, 700 Muscovites apply for a tree to be planted in honor of their newborn child each month.
In two months, young parents have submitted more than 1,500 online applications to participate in the Our Tree project and plant seedlings in honor of their newborn kids in the autumn. That’s twice as many as during the same period in spring. Acceptance of applications began on January 16 and will continue until June 15.
Last autumn, more than 5,000 trees were planted as part of the project, with linden, Norway maple, pine, white willow and rowan trees being the most popular choices. Spring planting of personal saplings will soon begin.
Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government and Head of the Department of Information Technology, noted that interest in the Our Tree project among young parents is growing every year: in 2019, more than 2,300 trees were applied for and planted, while in 2020 the number increased to 5,000. More than 4,500 saplings will appear in Moscow’s parks this spring thanks to the project participants.
“A set of online services has been created for families with children on the mos.ru portal. The Our Tree project is another opportunity for young parents to celebrate the important milestone of the birth of their child and to contribute to the city’s ecology. Taking part in the project is very simple – just submit an online application on the portal. Some information is filled in automatically from users’ personal accounts, which makes everything even more convenient. On average, Muscovites order more than 700 seedlings to plant as family trees in their favorite park each month,” said Lysenko.
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