Story at a glance

  • Data shows many countries slowly returning to prepandemic levels of emissions.
  • Experts say legislative initiative is needed for sustainable low-carbon economies.

One of the few silver linings 2020 had to offer was a notable drop in carbon emissions globally, thanks to the economic halt brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Environmental advocates have voiced optimism that this could manifest into sustainable, long-term change to help undo the effects of climate change. 

New data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) paints a dismal outlook; while global emissions fell by about 6 percent as energy demand dipped as well, energy-related carbon emissions rebounded by 2 percent by December 2020, as vaccines were being deployed throughout the world.

Emissions hit a record low in April, thanks to substantial drops in demand for energy sources like oil and coal, prompting a decline in almost 2,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Cleaner energy sources, including solar and wind energy, reached their highest ever annual share of the global energy mix.

Despite these milestones, as economic activity slowly recovers, so do emissions. China was one of the first nations to showcase rebounding emissions levels, registering a 7-percent increase in emissions from December 2020 in comparison to a year earlier, as they struggled with the initial COVID-19 outbreak. 

Countries like the U.S. and Brazil are also leading the world in fresh emissions as 2021 continues.

Scientists and environmentalists insist that the respite in emissions seen in 2020 will not be sufficient enough to sustainably reduce global carbon emissions. 

“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. 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,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. 

The U.S. in particular saw a 10 percent drop in emissions in 2020, but has been inching toward pre-pandemic averages since vaccine distribution has circulated. The IES notes that in December 2020, emission levels were nearing those seen in December 2019, just prior to nationwide public health shutdowns. 

Birol further elaborates that in March 2020, the IEA recommended to governments that they add clean energy reforms and policy initiatives into recovery plans to promote feasible infrastructure post-pandemic. Many — including the U.S — did not implement these, and experts say that returning to a carbon-dependent economy is already happening. 

Recent developments add some hope; President Biden enrolled the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord, and China has developed a new sustainable carbon neutral plan. 

“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,” Birol added. 

Published on Mar 02, 2021