Global emissions

Global carbon emissions: the world keeps polluting after Covid-19

Image credit: Dreamstime, IEA

After a lull during Covid-19, carbon emissions are up again and towering dangerously above pre-pandemic levels in some countries. Data and experts show how the world has fared in the wake of Covid, what the changes mean, and how how seeing the previous hiatus as progress might be misleading.

Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise again after a break imposed by a combination of Covid-19, slowing economic output and severe lockdown restrictions.

Environmentalists hoped the pause would give the largest emitters time to reflect. But emission cuts were no harbinger for sustained change, at least not according to the latest figures for the thawing economic post-pandemic revival in parts of Asia. 

The story of why emissions have rebounded at a steeper rate than they were rising before Covid-19 is complex. The findings are a reminder that emissions in countries often depend on trade with and economic stimulus in other nations. 

China is a good example of that. The nation's greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 not only rebounded but now vastly exceed those pre-pandemic levels.

E&T talked to an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). For China, the recent boost partly originated from a big domestic stimulus for construction, says Lauri Myllyvirta. In addition, a real estate boom in China had knock-on effects. Myllyvirta cites indicators like investments in smelting and pressing of iron and steel metals to make his case.  

A buoyant post-pandemic export boom - a consequence of consumption resulting from stimulus in other countries -reinforced carbon emissions in China, he says. 

There is evidence that Chinese provinces which championed exports are now among the worst offenders in missing energy-consumption control targets. Though, with still six months to go before the end of the year, judging by their course only about a third are reported to be on track to meet China's own energy consumption and intensity targets for 2021. 

E&T’s analysis compares daily emission data for the first quarter of 2019 with the first quarter of 2021, reflecting the changes between before and after the deepest trench of the global pandemic-related restrictions among various industry categories. 

China’s daily emissions in the power, industrial and domestic aviation sectors, exceed figures from early 2019 (see chart).


The post-pandemic surge catapulted the nation's emission levels to a new record high of nearly 12bn tonnes GtCO2 in the year ending March 2021, 600m tonnes (or a twentieth) more than in 2019, according to Carbon Brief

The estimates for real-time emissions data are compiled by carbon emissions researchers at the Carbon Monitor academic research group. The granularity of the data that includes the use of fossil fuels and the production of cement, is unique (its methodology here). 

“I expect that the Chinese government will have to start pulling back on stimulus this year due to debt concerns. Recovering household demand together with strong exports makes that easier”, Myllyvirta adds.

E&T's findings mirror those of the IEA, which says that a rapid increase in coal-fired generation across Asia means the power sector is carrying most of the rebound in 2021, around 80 per cent. Coal demand is poised to grow 4.5 per cent this year, four-fifths of this is in Asia.

Despite an ambitious and brand new national emissions trading scheme launched in February, the picture China currently paints locally is disappointing, especially on coal. New research last week found coal producers now pursuing 2.2bn tonnes of new coal mining capacity per annum in the form of new mining projects across the globe - a growth of 30 per cent from current production levels, according to calculations by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), which tracks coal projects around the world.

Most of this new coal mining capacity development is planned by Chinese entities (as well as Australian, Indian, and Russian), where state-owned enterprises with majority government ownership continue to invest in thermal coal mines and rely on subsidies to shield operations from external market pressures.

On emissions, Myllyvirta thinks that if the government can follow an approach to crack down on "low-quality growth", directing investments and spending towards services and high-tech sectors, and lowering the energy intensity of growth, tightening construction and real estate spending, reducing emissions, may follow. 

Changes in snow cover

Image credit: Modis satellite images

Illustration: Composite satellite images from two decades ago show how snow cover (and glacier ice) changed across Asia (note China and changes around the Tibetan plateau). 

Other global post-pandemic emissions trends

Globally, researchers at Carbon Monitor found that emissions surged 7.4 per cent through the first four months of the year. It's proof the world is not on track with cutting emissions fast enough to avoid warming and avoid extreme weather events.  

According to targets cited by the United Nations, carbon emissions must reach zero by 2030 in every country to stay below 2 °C of warming by 2100.

There are clear advantages to limiting warming to 1.5°C versus 2°C, including 420 million fewer people exposed to severe heat waves, survival of some tropical coral reefs, loss of fewer plants and animal species, and the protection of forests and wetland habitats.

Against a background renewable prices becoming rapidly more competitive compared to fossil fuels, including coal (see chart), experts are puzzled by the post-pandemic emission surge across Asia. 

Prices of green sources decline quickly. It's partly down to what some refer to as a 'learning curve' in the pursuit of increasing capacity, Our-World-In-Data author Max Roser wrote.

One study published by researchers at Tsinghua University and researchers from the US and France, observed that Covid-19 largely failed to provide an opportunity to cut emissions. Researchers concluded that China’s fast CO2 recovery and partial re-opening for global trade, “the longer-term effects of the pandemic on emissions remain uncertain”. It depends, among other factors, on "persistent changes in human behaviour". 

Such changes can be observed in the data by Carbon Monitor. Covid-19 might have made emissions to 'switch sectors'. A trend towards more people staying at home for work may have increased post-pandemic emissions in the residential category. In the UK, residential carbon emissions in Q1 of 2021 often exceeded those observed for 2019. Estimates for daily emissions are based on heating degree days. 



Despite the new emissions in a post-pandemic world, some analysts do think that the recent surge in emissions may be short-lived.

Global emissions

Image credit: IEA

Data on carbon emissions after the global financial crisis shows emissions to explode in a similar fashion as today, only to change to more moderate levels after. 

The 2021 emission rebound may also be occurring at a different rate in various sectors. Sluggish recovery in aviation will impact oil demand, experts say. 

China and the US will continue to compete in making ambitious pledges to reduce emissions. That's positive only if they follow up on it with action. Under Joe Biden, the US made considerable promises towards reducing emissions by 2030 and prepare the US to reduce emissions by 50 to 52 per cent below 2005 levels by then. China’s President Xi gave his word to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and a peak in emissions before 2030. It's time we see some changes.

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