Wageningen University: Global carbon emissions rebound close to pre-Covid levels

Global carbon emissions in 2021 are set to rebound close to pre-Covid levels, according to the Global Carbon Project. Fossil carbon emissions dropped by 5.4% in 2020 amid Covid lockdowns, but the new report projects an increase of 4.9% this year (4.1% to 5.7%) to 36.4 billion tonnes.

Emissions from coal and gas use are set to grow more in 2021 than they fell in 2020, but emissions from oil use remain below 2019 levels. For major emitters, the 2021 emissions appear to return to pre-COVID trends of decreasing CO2 emissions for the United States and European Union and increasing CO2 emissions for India. For China, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked further growth in CO2 emissions, pushed by the power and industry sectors.

The research team – including the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia (UEA), CICERO, Stanford University and also Wageningen University & Research – say a further rise in emissions in 2022 cannot be ruled out if road transport and aviation return to pre-pandemic levels and coal use is stable.

Rebound in CO2 emissions
The findings come as world leaders meet at COP26 in Glasgow to address the climate crisis and try to agree on a plan of action going forward. “The rapid rebound in emissions as economies recover from the pandemic reinforces the need for immediate global action on climate change,” said Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, who led the study.

“The rebound in global fossil CO2 emissions in 2021 reflects a return towards the pre-Covid fossil based economy. Investments in the green economy in post-Covid recovery plans of some countries have been insufficient so far, on their own, to avoid a substantial return close to pre-Covid emissions.”

Major emitters
The report – the 16th annual Global Carbon Budget – produced an analysis on major emitters. China leads and is responsible for 31% of global emissions, followed by the USA (14% of global emissions), EU and India (both 7% of global emissions). Note that these numbers exclude international transport, particularly aviation.

China: Emissions are projected to rise 4% compared to 2020, reaching 5.5% above 2019 – a total of 11.1 billion tonnes CO2, 31% of global emissions.
USA: Emissions are projected to rise 7.6% compared to 2020, reaching 3.7% below 2019 – a total of 5.1 billion tonnes CO2, 14% of global emissions.
EU27: Emissions are projected to rise 7.6% compared to 2020, reaching 4.2% below 2019 – a total of 2.8 billion tonnes CO2, 7% of global emissions.
India: Emissions are projected to rise 12.6% compared to 2020, reaching 4.4% above 2019 – a total of 2.7 billion tonnes CO2, 7% of global emissions.
For the rest of the world taken as a whole, fossil CO2 emissions remain below 2019 levels. Over the past decade, global CO2 net emissions from land-use change were 4.1 billion tonnes, with 14.1 billion tonnes CO2 emitted by deforestation and other land-use changes, and 9.9 billion tonnes CO2 removed by regrowth of forests and soil recovery.

Carbon sinks
Removals by forests and soils have grown in the last two decades, while emissions by deforestation and other land-use changes remained relatively stable. This suggests a recent decline in net emissions from land-use change, although with a large attached uncertainty. When combining CO2 emissions from fossil sources and net land-use change, total emissions have remained relatively constant in the last decade, averaging 39.7 billion tonnes CO2.

Wouter Peters and Ingrid Luijkx, both from the Meteorology and Air Quality group of WUR, were involved in this project. “Our results show that the natural carbon sinks in the biosphere and ocean took up 53% of the CO2 emissions in the past decade, thereby reducing the impact on climate change,” says Luijkx. “It is very relevant to continue to track how these sinks will change in the future, as they are expected to be less effective with higher emission scenarios”.

The 2021 edition is published as a preprint and is undergoing an open review in the journal Earth System Science Data.

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