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COP26 update: Gained 2021 CO2 emissions cancel out 2020 losses

carbon emission

Global carbon dioxide pollution returned to a pre-pandemic level this year, as per an early estimate by the research group Global Carbon Project (GCP) prepared for COP26

Emissions from fossil-fuel burning are expected to rise this year by 4.9% above the 2020 level China is responsible for almost a third of fossil-fuel CO₂ emissions To keep temperature rise below 1.7°C or 2°C, there are 20 or 32 years’ worth of emissions left

Bloomberg Green said global carbon dioxide pollution returned to a pre-pandemic level this year, referring to an early estimate by the research group Global Carbon Project (GCP) prepared for COP26 talks that took place in Glasgow.

To meet the 2050 goal of the Paris Agreement, which calls for limits to warming temperatures, nations would now have to cut emissions every year by an amount greater than the combined carbon output of Germany and Saudi. 

Emissions from fossil-fuel burning are expected to rise this year by 4.9% above the 2020 level, to 36.4 gigatons of CO₂, or nearly the 2019 level (0.8% less). Last year, emissions fell 5.4% after COVID-19-related quarantines and policies limited economic activity in much of the world. 

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, emissions dropped 1.5% in 2009 and then jumped 5% in 2010.

On its own, China is responsible for almost a third of fossil-fuel CO₂ emissions and its national emissions are expected to finish the year 5.5% higher than 2019, at 11 gigatons. India’s emissions, the third-largest, were found to rise 4.4% over 2019.

Chinese coal use was a particularly large driver of the global rebound in emissions, with the power and industry sectors in China the main contributors. 

Emissions from coal and gas are predicted to grow more in 2021 than they fell the previous year. Coal, oil, and gas all fell during the pandemic, but emissions for both have already surpassed their pre-pandemic levels, with a 2% increase in gas emissions and a 1% increase in coal emissions between 2019 and 2021. 

Oil emissions remain around 6% below 2019 levels and this persistent reduction is one of the main reasons 2021 emissions did not set a new record. Energy use from renewable sources grew more than 10% this year, on par with the recent average.

Emissions control

During the previous decade, CO₂ emissions fell in 23 countries that make up about a quarter of the world’s total. This group includes the US, which is the second biggest annual polluter and the biggest historically, Japan, Mexico, and 14 European countries.

To have a 50% shot at keeping global heating below 1.5°C, beginning in 2022, the world can emit no more than 11 years’ worth of CO₂ at the current rate. To keep temperature rise below 1.7°C or 2°C, there are 20 or 32 years’ worth of emissions left. 

Land-use emissions

While fossil emissions are expected to return to near-record levels, the study also reassesses historical emissions from land-use change (LUC), revealing that global CO2 output overall may have been effectively flat over the past decade.

The 2021 GCP almost halves the estimate of net emissions from land-use change over the past two years, and by an average of 25% over the past decade.

Emissions from land-use change in the new GCP dataset have been decreasing by around 4% per year over the past decade, compared to an increase of 1.8% per year in the prior version. 

However, the GCP authors caution that uncertainties in land-use change emissions remain large.

Fossil CO2 emissions represent upwards of 90% of current global emissions but GCP researchers point out that the largest uncertainties in understanding of CO2 emissions come from LUC.