Smokestack pollution

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions Hit New Highs in 2021

March 10, 2022
A new International Energy Association report says global CO2 emissions rebounded to their highest level in history in 2021.

The International Energy Association (IEA) just released its Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2021, and the results aren’t encouraging. The group says global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tons, their highest ever level, as the world economy rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 crisis and relied heavily on coal to power that growth.

The IEA says the more than-2 billion-ton increase in global CO2 emissions was the largest in history in absolute terms, more than offsetting the previous year’s pandemic-induced decline, the IEA analysis shows. “The recovery of energy demand in 2021 was compounded by adverse weather and energy market conditions—notably the spikes in natural gas prices, the IEA points out, “which led to more coal being burned despite renewable power generation registering its largest ever growth.”

Things to Know

The other key findings in IEA’s report include:

  • Coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021.
  • Coal-fired power plants were called upon to meet half of the increase in global electricity demand in 2021, with coal’s share of total generation rebounding above 36%.
  • CO2 emissions from natural gas also rebounded well above 2019 levels to 7.5 Gigatons (Gt) as demand increased in all sectors.
  • At 10.7 Gt, emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021.
  • The biggest increase in CO2 emissions by sector in 2021 took place in electricity and heat production, where they jumped by more than 900 Mt.
  • Global CO2 emissions from the industry and buildings sectors rebounded back to their 2019 levels, driven by increases in both advanced economies and emerging market and developing economies.
  • Almost all regions posted an increase in CO2 emissions in 2021, with the annual change ranging from growth of more than 10% in Brazil and India, to less than 1% in Japan.
  • Emissions in China rose by 5%, while the United States and European Union both registered increases of around 7%.

The IEA also found that renewable energy sources and nuclear power provided a higher share of global electricity generation than coal in 2021. Renewables-based generation reached an all-time high, exceeding 8,000 Terawatt hours (TWh) in 2021, a record five hundred TWh above 2020’s level.

Output from wind and solar PV increased by 270 TWh and 170 TWh, respectively, while hydro generation declined by 15 TWh due to the impacts of drought, notably in the US and Brazil, the IEA reports. Nuclear power output expanded by 100 TWh. “Without increasing output from renewables and nuclear power,” the group states, “the rise in global CO2 emissions in 2021 would have been 220 metric tons (Mt) higher.”

Mitigating the Damage

The 6% increase in global CO2 emissions in 2021 aligns with the increased global economic output of 5.9%, the group says, and marks the strongest coupling of CO2 emissions with gross domestic product (GDP) growth since 2010, when global emissions rebounded by 6.1% while economic output grew by 5.1% as the world emerged from the global financial crisis (i.e., the “Great Recession”).

A part of IEA’s global energy review, the new report also states that the world has “not heeded the call for sustainable recovery” from the pandemic, but adds that some sustainable measures that will come online in the next eight years may help mitigate some of the damage inflicted in 2021.

“The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off – and that sustainable investments combined with the accelerated deployment of clean energy technologies will reduce CO2 emissions in 2022,” IEA states, “keeping alive the possibility of reducing global CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050.”

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.