Global CO2 levels set to rebound to near pre-Covid-19 levels: Study

GLASGOW – After falling sharply because of pandemic lockdowns, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, driven in part by China and India, a global assessment released on Thursday (Nov 4) shows.

The strong economic recovery this year has fuelled a surge in coal, oil and gas consumption as factories return to 2019 production levels and demand for electricity soars.

The findings by the Global Carbon Project dim hopes that the pandemic – and trillions of dollars in stimulus spending – will lead to a green economic recovery.

Instead, the world remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, pumping out huge amounts of CO2 that are heating up the planet and fuelling increasingly severe weather disasters.

Fossil fuel CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 4.9 per cent this year after dropping by an unprecedented 5.4 per cent in 2020.

In total, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production are forecast to hit 36.4 billion tonnes this year, with a further 2.9 billion tonnes from land use change, such as deforestation and land degradation, said the assessment. The Global Carbon Project is an international consortium that analyses greenhouse gas emissions trends.

The study comes as delegates from nearly 200 nations are meeting in Glasgow at the COP26 climate talks to try to agree a deal that will limit the pace of global warming and speed up the switch to green energy.

“The rebound in global fossil CO2 emissions in 2021 reflects a return towards the pre-Covid fossil-based economy. Investments in the green economy in post-Covid recovery plans of some countries have been insufficient so far, on their own, to avoid a substantial return close to pre-Covid emissions,” said Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, of Exeter University’s Global Systems Institute, who led the study.

Emissions from coal, oil and gas showed strong growth in 2021, with coal and natural gas set to grow more in 2021 than 2020.

China and India accounted for a large portion of the emissions growth. Their CO2 emissions this year are predicted to significantly exceed 2019 levels.

China’s emissions are projected to rise 4 per cent compared to 2020, reaching 5.5 per cent above 2019 levels and representing 31 per cent of global emissions in 2021.

India’s emissions are projected to rise 12.6 per cent compared to 2020, up 4.4 per cent from 2019 levels, representing 7 per cent of global emissions.

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For the United States and European Union, emissions are forecast to rise this year but will be below 2019 levels, in line with recent trends of falling emissions for both.

The authors say a further rise in global CO2 emissions in 2022 cannot be ruled out if road transport and aviation return to pre-pandemic levels and coal use is unchanged.

The findings mean that humanity is rapidly running out of time to make deep cuts in CO2 emissions to prevent dangerous climate change. Every year of high CO2 emissions – currently nearly 40 billion tonnes – increases the climate risks because CO2 is long-lasting in the atmosphere and accumulates.

The United Nations’ climate science panel says exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial times risks accelerating severe impacts such as more destructive storms and larger and deadlier wildfires. The world has already warmed 1.1 deg C, the UN says.

To have a 50 per cent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 deg C, the researchers estimate the remaining “carbon budget” has now shrunk to 420 billion tonnes, equivalent to 11 years from the beginning of 2022.

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Essentially, the world has a finite amount of CO2 it can emit before the 1.5 deg C level is breached. So, just like money in a bank account, the faster it is spent the faster the balance reaches zero.

To achieve net zero CO2 global emissions by 2050 means cutting global emissions by about 1.4 billion tonnes each year on average, said Prof Friedlingstein.

“Emissions fell by 1.9 billion tonnes in 2020 – so, to achieve net zero by 2050, we must cut emissions every year by an amount comparable to that seen during Covid.

“This highlights the scale of the action that is now required, and hence the importance of the COP26 discussions.”

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