Big rise in CO2 emissions cut ‘needed to stem climate emergency’

Reductions due to coronavirus pandemic will prove temporary, concludes global stocktake

Despite 64 countries cutting carbon emissions associated with fossil fuels during the 2016-2019 period, the rate of reduction needs to increase tenfold to meet Paris Agreement aims to tackle climate change, a major international study has found.

In a first global stocktake, researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Stanford University in the US and the Global Carbon Project examined progress in cutting fossil CO2 emissions since the agreement was adopted in 2015. Reductions due to the coronavirus pandemic will prove to be temporary, they predict.

The results "show the clear need for far greater ambition" ahead of the critical UN climate summit in Glasgow in November (Cop26), they suggest.

The annual cuts of 0.16 billion tonnes of CO2 achieved are only 10 per cent of the one to two billion tonnes of reductions needed globally annually to tackle climate disruption.


The findings were published in Nature Climate Change on Wednesday. Emissions increased in 150 countries including Ireland. Global emissions grew by 0.21 billion tonnes per year during 2016-2019, compared to 2011-2015.

In 2020, confinement measures to tackle the pandemic cut global emissions by 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2, about 7 per cent below 2019 levels.

The researchers say, however, 2020 was a “pause button that cannot realistically continue while the world overwhelmingly relies on fossil fuels, and confinement policies are neither a sustainable nor desirable solution to the climate crisis”.

Prof Corinne Le Quéré of UEA School of Environmental Sciences, who led the analysis, said countries’ efforts to cut emissions since the Paris Agreement were starting to pay off. But actions are not large scale enough yet and emissions are still increasing in way too many countries.”

The 2020 decline highlighted the scale of actions and of international adherence needed to tackle climate change, she added. “Now we need large-scale actions that are good for human health and good for the planet. It is in everyone’s best interests to build back better to speed the urgent transition to clean energy.”

Annual cuts of one to tow billion tonnes were needed throughout the 2020s and beyond to avoid exceeding global warming within the range 1.5 degrees to well below two degrees, she said.

Of the 36 high-income countries, 25 saw their emissions decrease during 2016-2019 compared to 2011-2015, including the US (-0.7 per cent), the EU (-0.9 per cent), and the UK (-3.6 per cent). Emissions reduced even when accounting for the carbon footprint of imported goods produced in other countries. Among rich economies, however, Ireland was a notable exception.

Curbing emissions

Thirty of 99 upper-middle income countries saw their emissions decrease during 2016-2019 compared to 2011-2015, suggesting "actions to reduce emissions are now in motion in many countries worldwide". Mexico (-1.3 per cent) is a notable example in that group, while China's emissions increased 0.4 per cent, much less than the 6.2 per cent annual growth of 2011-2015.

“The growing number of climate change laws and policies appear to have played a key role in curbing growth in emissions during 2016-2019,” the authors conclude.

“A full bounce-back in 2021 to previous emission levels appears unlikely,” they conclude. However, unless the Covid-19 recovery directs investments in clean energy and the green economy, emissions “will likely start increasing again within a few years”.

The 2020 disruption, particularly affecting road transport, “means incentive to expedite the large-scale deployment of EVs and encourage walking and cycling in cities are timely and would also improve public health”, they note. Resilience of renewable energy throughout the pandemic, falling costs and air quality benefits “are additional incentives to support their large-scale deployment”.

The EU, Denmark, France, the UK, Germany and Switzerland were among few countries that have so far implemented substantial green stimulus packages with limited investments in fossil-based activities, the study finds.

Prof Rob Jackson of Stanford University said: "The growing commitments by countries to reach net-zero emissions within decades strengthens the climate ambition needed at COP26."

Prof Dave Reay of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute said it was a "super timely, study" as it indicated where emissions were headed post-Covid. "Already there are signs that instead of 'build back better' it is often more a case of 'build back, whatever'. If we are to have any chance of getting on track to meet the Paris Climate goals the route out of the pandemic must be both global and green."

A drop in emissions for one or two years does not have a long-term effect on climate change, said Dr Robin Lamboll of Imperial College London. "The question for the future is to what extent the emissions reduction indicates a change of culture, and to what extent government assistance is going towards growing a greener economy rather than rebooting fossil fuels," he said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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