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Global emissions rebounded to nearly pre-pandemic levels in 2021 — study

Scientists blame China for playing large part in sending pollution back toward 2019 record after COVID lockdowns provided one-year reprieve, with numbers expected to rise for years

Smoke and steam rise from towers at the coal-fired Urumqi Thermal Power Plant in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 21, 2021. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)
Smoke and steam rise from towers at the coal-fired Urumqi Thermal Power Plant in Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 21, 2021. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

GLASGOW, Scotland — Global carbon dioxide emissions caused mainly by burning fossil fuels are set to rebound in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels, with China’s share increasing to nearly a third of the total, according to an assessment published Thursday.

Overall, CO₂ pollution this year will be just shy of the record set in 2019, according to the annual report from the Global Carbon Project consortium, released as nearly 200 nations at the COP26 climate summit confront the threat of catastrophic warming.

The consortium’s scientists estimated that in 2021 the world will have spewed 36.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared to 36.7 billion metric tons two years ago.

At the height of the pandemic last year, emissions were down to 34.8 billion metric tons, so this year’s jump is 4.9%, according to updated calculations by the Global Carbon Project.

Capping the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — as per the Paris Agreement — would limit mortality and damage, but requires slashing carbon emissions nearly in half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, the UN’s climate science authority has warned.

“This report is a reality check,” said co-author Corrine Le Querre, a professor of climate change science at Britain’s University of East Anglia, who presented the results alongside colleagues in Glasgow, where COP26 is taking place.

“It shows what’s happening in the real world while we are here in Glasgow talking about tackling climate change,” she said.

French activist Jean-Baptiste Redde also known as Voltuan demonstrates outside the venue in Glasgow on November 1, 2021 on the second day of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.(Oli SCARFF / AFP)

With 2020’s lockdowns leading to dramatically clean air in cities from India to Italy, some had hoped the world was on the right track in reducing carbon pollution, but scientists said that wasn’t the case.

“It’s not the pandemic that will make us turn the corner,” LeQuere said. “It’s the decisions that are being taken this week and next week. That’s what’s going to make us turn the corner. The pandemic is not changing the nature of our economy.”

If the world is going to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, it has only 11 years left at current emission levels before it is too late, the paper said. The world has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s.

“What the carbon emissions numbers show is that emissions have basically flattened now. That’s the good news,” said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn’t part of the report. “The bad news is that’s not enough. We need to start bringing (emissions) down.”

An empty street leads to the ancient Colosseum, in Rome, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Emissions in China were 7% higher in 2021 when compared to 2019, the study said, while India’s emissions were 3% higher. In contrast, the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world polluted less this year than in 2019.

2021 emissions in the US and EU will drop 3.7% and 4.2%, respectively, and their share of global emissions will stand at 14% and 7%. China on its own will account for 31% of global emissions this year.

LeQuere said China’s jump was mostly from burning coal and natural gas and was part of a massive economic stimulus to recover from the lockdown. In addition, she said, China’s lockdown ended far earlier than the rest of the world, so the country had longer to recover economically and pump more carbon into the air.

The new report will come as bad news at the 13-day COP26 meeting, where a diplomatic spat saw the United States accuse China and Russia of failing to step up their climate action ambitions.

Carbon pollution from oil remains well below 2019 levels, but could surge as the transport and aviation sectors recover from pandemic disruption, said the study, published in the journal Earth System Science Data.

Taken together, the findings mean that future CO₂ emissions could eclipse the record set in 2019, which some have predicted — and many hoped — would be a peak.

“We cannot rule out more overall growth of emissions in 2022 as the transport sector continues to recover,” Le Quere said. “We are bound to have ups and downs over the next few years.”

In this file photo travellers line up at Miami International Airport (MIA) on August 2, 2021. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP)

Breakthrough Institute climate director Zeke Hausfather, who wasn’t part of the study, predicted that “there is a good chance that 2022 will set a new record for global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels.”

The latest figures are in line with a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast that emissions from energy would hit an all-time high in 2023, “with no clear peak in sight.”

“Perhaps we will start talking about peak emissions in 2023 or 2024?”, said Glen Peters, research director at the Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo and a co-author of the report.

Canary in the coal mine

The wild card that could determine how quickly the world can finally bend the emissions downward is coal, the report made clear.

“Mostly it’s about coal now,” said Le Quere. “This is where the big uncertainties are.”

Steam comes out of the chimneys of the coal-fired power station Neurath near the Garzweiler open-cast coal mine in Luetzerath, Germany, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Very little of the trillions of dollars funneled to post-pandemic recovery was earmarked for green development, a trend that is continuing, Le Quere charged.

“Economic incentives now are about driving consumption, and this is really pushing industry, production and coal,” she said.

Worldwide, decarbonization — mainly switching from fossil fuels to renewable — continues to be outpaced by the demand for energy, adding to emissions.

Israel among strong economies curbing emissions

But the report was not bereft of positive signals.

Twenty-three countries accounting for a quarter of global emissions over the last decade — including Israel, the US, Japan, Germany, France and Britain — simultaneously saw strong growth and a significant decline in emissions, showing that the two can be decoupled.

For 15 of these nations, including Israel, this held true even when the carbon emissions from the production of imported goods was included.

“This shows that these countries know how to do it, they demonstrate it’s possible,” said Le Quere.

A tanker truck passes the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, on March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

But the finding makes clear how daunting the Paris Agreement goals are, she added.

“If you want to reach net zero by 2050, you need to decrease emissions, on average, by 1.4 billion [metric] tons per year,” she said. “In 2020, during the pandemic, we had a drop of 1.6 billion [metric] tons — this shows you the scale of the action required.”

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