Energy-related CO2 emissions set a record high of 36.3 Gt last year, a 6% increase from 2020 and above the 36.1 Gt from 2019. Greenhouse gas emissions from energy use were also at an all-time high, at around 41 GtCO2-equivalent.
This increase demonstrates that the world “has not heeded the call for a sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 crisis”. Nevertheless, some advanced economies have used their economic programs to tilt towards decarbonisation, though global levels of spending on clean energy and sustainability measures are at only 40% of what they need to be over the 2021-23 period to meet the IEA’s own Sustainable Recovery Plan. Electricity generation from renewables grew by about 6.7% in 2021 from 2020.
Electricity and heat generation accounted for 46% of the total emissions increases from 2020 to 2021. Almost all of this occurred in China, as electricity demand jumped by 10% (adding the equivalent of the total demand of Africa), outpacing economic growth of 8.4%, and though there were small declines in emissions in the rest of the world, these were insufficient to offset the increase in China. Indian emissions also rose slightly above 2019 levels.
Emissions from the combustion of coal accounted for 40% of emissions growth in 2021, as utilities turned to the fuel amidst higher prices for gas. Coal emissions are now at an all-time high of 15.3 Gt CO2, higher than the 2014 peak.
Emissions from natural gas combustion were also higher than in 2019, but oil emissions were lower than in 2019 (though higher than in 2020), as passenger road transport continued to be somewhat muted. (Interestingly, the “emissions reduction impact of record electric car sales in 2021 was cancelled out by the parallel increase in sales of SUVs”.)
Per-capita Chinese emissions are now above the average of advanced economies, while the energy intensity of GDP of China, while declining, is more than three times that of the European Union, and more than twice that of the USA.
The findings are discouraging ones for the state of the climate. While there are elements of hope, in large amounts of renewables being added to the energy mix, and emissions declining in advanced economies, the unabated combustion of fossil fuels has reached a record maximum. Absolute reductions are required in the first half of this decade, and efforts to achieve those reductions must be heightened, including reducing the flaring of methane, energy efficiency measures, electrification (including of passenger vehicles), the retirement of inefficient generation capacity and replacement by low or zero-emissions technology, and the installation of carbon capture and storage facilities.