Global CO2 emissions rising again despite fall last year over Covid-19, says IEA

Major economies rebounded in December with emissions 2% higher than December 2019

Global carbon dioxide emissions rebounded strongly in 2020 and rose above 2019 levels in December with many economies now seeing emissions climbing above pre-crisis levels, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Major economies led a rebound in December when emissions were 2 per cent – or 60 million tonnes – higher than in December 2019, as a pick-up in economic activity increased energy demand, the IEA concluded in a report published on Tuesday.

"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," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

The Covid-19 crisis in 2020 triggered the largest annual drop in global energy-related emissions since the second World War, “but the overall decline of 5.8 per cent 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. 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”.

“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,” Dr Birol warned.

“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,” he said.

This year was pivotal for international climate action, he pointed out, 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, the IEA concludes. “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.”

EU emissions

Across the EU, a region that saw multiple restrictions and lockdowns being imposed in almost all member states, annual CO2 emissions fell by 10 per cent relative to 2019. No breakdown on the Irish figure is provided but the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated it is almost 6 per cent.

Lower electricity demand across the bloc and an 8 per cent increase in output from renewables drove a more than 20 per cent decline in coal-fire power generation. As a result, the share of renewables in electricity generation increased to a record 39 per cent in 2020, four percentage points higher than in 2019. Transport oil demand fell by 12 per cent, a consequence of strict lockdown measures and restrictions on intra-European movement

Emissions in China for the whole of 2020 increased by 0.8 per cent, or 75 million tonnes, from 2019 levels driven by its economic recovery over the course of the year. It 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.

Emissions in the United States fell by 10 per cent 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.

“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.

He added: “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 EU is pushing ahead with its Green Deal and sustainable recovery plans; India’s stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future; and the UK is building global momentum toward stronger climate action at COP26 in November.”

For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year, he said. 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 degrees.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times