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Countries are polluting like it’s 2019 again

Global CO2 emissions came roaring back as pandemic-induced restrictions loosened

Zhangjiakou City, Hebei Province, China, February 7, 2021.
Zhangjiakou City, Hebei Province, China, February 7, 2021.
Photo by Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Globally, people produced more planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions in December than they did before the pandemic, new data shows. It’s a sign that the pandemic-related drop in emissions was only temporary and that greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to climb.

CO2 emissions from energy use around the world were 2 percent higher in December 2020 compared to global levels during the same month in the previous year, according to the intergovernmental International Energy Agency. China, currently the world’s biggest CO2 polluter, also saw a rise in emissions toward the end of the year.

The new data caps off a year in which global emissions initially plummeted as a result of restrictions placed to stop the spread of COVID-19. But a brief halt to business as usual won’t be enough to avert a more severe climate crisis. To prevent more dire consequences from climate change, economies will need to adopt clean energy as they recover.

“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,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in a statement today.

The rebound in emissions was driven by major economies including China, India, and Brazil. China saw a 0.8 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions overall last year, according to the IEA. Another analysis this week by the UK-based Carbon Brief website found that the country’s emissions rose even more. They found that China’s emissions were up 1.5 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and that the boost was mostly due to a push to jump-start its pandemic-slowed economy with highly polluting industries like construction and heavy manufacturing.

It’s not surprising that China’s pollution is still growing. Its previous climate commitment under the Paris Agreement set the country on track to reach its highest emissions by 2030, although its leader Xi Jinping recently pledged to set more ambitious carbon-cutting goals for this decade. In September, China also set a new goal of offsetting or capturing more carbon dioxide than it releases by 2060.

Globally, emissions need to head steadily and speedily downward to meet the Paris accord goal of limiting global warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We’ve already warmed the planet by more than a degree, and we can see evidence of that in more severe droughts, fires, storms, and heat waves.

Preventing more catastrophic damage requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero by the middle of the century, according to leading climate scientists. That takes incremental steps: a nearly 8-percent reduction in global emissions every year this decade. The pandemic only cut 2020’s annual emissions by about 6 percent overall, according to the IEA. With emissions rebounding so quickly in late 2020, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work left to do for the world to actually hit those targets.