Carbon emissions are going to balloon as the world exits the pandemic and returns to normal

April 20, 2021, 4:40 PM UTC

As the pandemic eases and countries enter economic recovery mode, global carbon dioxide emissions are set to shoot higher.

Carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to increase by almost 5% this year—marking the second-largest jump since the carbon-intensive recovery after the global financial crisis of 2008, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Global Energy Review 2021.

Demand for energy is expected to surge as a strong economic outlook is boosted by the accelerating rollout of vaccinations and widespread fiscal response to the economic crisis. As a result, emissions will increase—reversing much of the positive pollution-abating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the expected emissions are driven by a strong rebound in coal-powered electricity. More than 80% of the growth in coal demand is set to come from Asia, predominantly led by China. Coal use in the U.S. and the EU is also expected to increase but will likely remain below pre-crisis levels. All combined, coal emissions are expected to surpass the level in 2019, possibly reaching the all-time peak of 2014.

More optimistically, renewable energy will also be able to meet some of the increased demand. Electricity from wind and solar power is expected to provide 30% of electricity generation worldwide in 2021, up from less than 27% in 2019. China is expected to account for almost half of the global increase in renewable electricity generation, followed by the U.S., the EU, and India.

Climate action will be discussed this week at the Leaders Summit on Climate, hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden. Forty world leaders will discuss their country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Ahead of the meeting, some European countries have decided to lower emissions faster than previously planned. The U.K. today accelerated plans to cut carbon emissions 78% by 2035. It had previously targeted reducing emissions 80% come 2050. Meanwhile the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea are also expected to increase their carbon-cutting ambitions.

The U.S. and China issued a joint statement on Saturday after climate envoy John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai in which they “are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”  

In more-emerging markets, countries such as India, Indonesia, and Mexico have been mulling a net-zero target but are finding it difficult to exit coal. Meanwhile in other countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Brazil, domestic energy production and politics will have to be overcome prior to committing to net zero.