The economic recovery after the stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been far from sustainable. Quite the contrary: it has fueled the climate crisis like never before. The generation of energy based on fossil fuels has caused a historical record of CO2 emissions, the main greenhouse gas, according to the calculation of the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The drop in traffic and dirty energy in the pandemic cut greenhouse gases below the level of 1990
After emissions fell in 2020, the rebound “has gone beyond reversing that decline,” explains the organization: 36.3 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide were released – 6% more – when producing energy, to which another two Gt of other gases such as methane are added. It is “the maximum ever reached”, says the IEA.
Limiting the Earth’s warming to an extra 1.5ºC at the end of the century implies reducing, not increasing, emissions by 50% in 2030, according to scientific calculations. Without this, the inertia of the accumulation of gases, their permanence in the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect they cause would cause the planet to exceed that threshold.
This increase in CO2 is almost identical to the overall “economic growth jump” which has been calculated at 5.9%. “That marks the match between the increase in gross domestic product and emissions that still exists,” the Agency denounces. “The world has not heard the call for a sustainable recovery” after COVID-19. To go back in numbers, coal, gas and oil have been used.
Deaf ears to sustainable recovery
And it is not that there were no requests to take advantage of the 2020 CO2 reduction as a springboard. IEA Director Fatih Birol recalled that “creating a sustainable energy future must not get lost in the turmoil of immediate priorities.” Many European environment ministers called, as early as April 2020, that plans to come out of COVID should be “aligned with those seeking to tackle the climate crisis”. The EU Green Deal marks that emissions in 2030 should fall by 55%. But, for now, the path of greenhouse gas reduction has been aborted. US President Joe Biden also included the fight against climate change in your priorities.
This IEA count comes a week after the UN Panel of Scientific Experts (IPCC) revealed in a report that the damage caused by the climate crisis has worsened and accelerated beyond expectations. All that CO2 emitted in record amounts has reached the atmosphere while the countries submitted their new plans to comply with the Paris Agreement against climate change and that, added together, lead the planet to a temperature increase of around 2.5ºC. The agreement marks a maximum permissible “well below 2ºC”.
Although it sounds strange, the fossil fuel that has grown the most has been coal. Emissions from its combustion have been the highest ever recorded and “40% of the entire annual increase.” They have surpassed their previous peak that had been marked in 2014. A climatic setback of seven years. Gas also bounced back eagerly and beyond what was emitted in 2019. There was a lot of demand for gas to generate electricity, and when the wave of rising prices came, “there was a move to coal.” Nothing went right.
As for oil, it was used less for the transport sector, which somewhat cushions this rebound that has occurred despite the fact that generation from renewable sources was the highest in history in 2021.
It happened everywhere
No one has been immune to the temptation to push the economy at the expense of exacerbating the climate crisis. All regions of the world experience increases in the CO2 they have emitted in 2021. Some countries have made big jumps: Brazil and India by 10%, the European Union and the US by 7%…but “the global rebound has been led by China”, analyze the technicians. Its emissions (which have risen in both 2020 and 2021) have ended up canceling the reduction experienced in 2020 throughout the world.
“Its economic recovery appears to be especially energy-intensive,” the paper summarizes. And much of that energy has come from burning coal. As in India, which has broken its historical record for electricity produced by coal-fired power plants.
It was the Indian delegation, precisely, that maneuvered at the last minute at the Glasgow climate conference in November 2021 to water down the clause of the pact that called for an end to public subsidies for fossil fuels. China was the one that paved the way for him in the previous sessions, as could be seen during the COP assemblies.
India managed to amend the text on the fly to move from the term “abandon” to “reduce” subsidies. A flow of public money to sustain the use of coal, oil or gas that, worldwide, triples that allocated to clean energy. Five months after this episode, the emission figures arrive to contextualize that dispute carried out in public hearing.