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IEA: Post-pandemic emissions rebound hard to avoid
Covid-19 resulted in a historic fall in GHG emissions last year, but ensuring that 2019 marks a peak will be extremely challenging

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions dropped 5.8% in 2020, the largest annual decline since the Second World War, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) report Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020, published March 2. In absolute terms, the total fall in emissions of almost 2,000 million tons (Mt) of CO2 last year was “without precedent in human history”, the IEA said.

The data underlines the huge economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures employed to counter its spread. Massive curtailment of road and air transport meant that global emissions from oil use, for example, fell by over 1,100 Mt in 2020 from 11,400 Mt in 2019.

Underlying trends

Economic recovery, as vaccine programmes are rolled out around the world, mean there will inevitably be a bounce back in emissions levels this year, but there were also some positive underlying trends revealed by the data. Low carbon fuels and technologies, notably wind and solar power, reached their highest ever annual share of the energy mix at 20% last year, one percentage point higher than in 2019.

Sales of electric cars grew by 40% to over 3 million, huge growth which has to be seen within the context of a 15% collapse in car sales overall. In the power sector, emissions dropped 3.3% in 2020, the largest fall on record. The biggest contributor to this decline was not reduced demand as a result of the pandemic, but the accelerating share of renewables in electricity generation. The share of renewables jumped from 27% in 2019 to 29% in 2020, the largest yearly increase on record, the IEA said.

Glimpse of the future

Nowhere was this more evident than in the EU, where annual CO2 emissions fell 10% relative to 2019. Renewables’ share of electricity generation jumped four percentage points to a record 39%, owing to lower demand and a more than 20% reduction in coal-fired power generation. Despite the pandemic, globally “renewables accelerated their expansion in 2020 with a 50% increase in their contribution to lowering power sector emissions relative to 2019”, the IEA said.

Power systems operating successfully with a much higher proportion of renewables and growing consumer preferences for electric cars give cause for optimism and a glimpse of the future, according to the report.

Rebound and restructuring

By the end of 2020, as economies recovered from the first wave of the virus, monthly emissions levels were already on the rise back toward, and in some countries above, pre-pandemic levels.

According to the IEA, it will be extremely challenging to ensure that 2019 marks a definitive peak in global CO2 emissions. Avoiding a rebound requires rapid structural changes in the way in which energy is produced and used, the agency said, as outlined in its Sustainable Recovery report, published last June.

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