After a record-breaking drop in carbon emissions in 2020, global CO2 emissions have bounced back, nearly to pre-pandemic levels—a sign of how a “return to normal” isn’t enough to curb the emissions crisis and avoid tipping over our carbon budget.
When the world shut down in 2020, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use that year dropped by two billion metric tons, the equivalent of taking 500 million cars off of roads globally. But as things reopened, with people heading back into offices and even flying again, all that activity has brought global emissions back up, mostly cancelling out that 2020 decrease.
Experts saw this coming. In 2020, airplanes were parked, industries were closed down, commutes were curtailed. But society didn’t replace any of those things for the world’s reopening, they were just turned back on once vaccines became available. “When the same polluting infrastructure fires back up, it still emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, an international group of experts that tracks carbon emissions. “When the global economy returns to close to normal—at least emissions return close to normal—that’s what we saw in 2021.”
Overall, global CO2 emissions are projected to increase 4.9% over 2020, for a total of nearly 36.4 billion tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. Rebounds are common after any global crisis that halts economic activity; that 4.9% bounce back is similar to the emissions rebound that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.
Different countries saw different rebounds, as well. In the U.S. and across Europe, fossil carbon emissions rebounded by 8%, compared to a 10% drop in 2020. In other places, the emissions rebound was so high that 2021 emissions actually eclipsed 2019 levels. In India, CO2 emissions jumped almost 13% in 2021, to actually be just above its 2019 emissions levels. In China, fossil emissions rose about 4% compared with 2020, and 6% higher than in 2019, partially because China’s COVID-19 response came earlier than much of the rest of the world; experts already saw the country’s emissions start to ramp back up in 2020.
Climate experts had hoped that COVID economy recovery packages would funnel money toward environmental solutions to change the trajectory of our emissions-heavy future. But ultimately, that hasn’t turned out to be true. “What I’m most discouraged about is how little stimulus funding around the world so far has gone to green energy and tech,” Jackson says.
The U.S. is behind other countries when it comes to COVID stimulus funding, with the Build Back Better plan seemingly off the table in Congress. But the rest of the world has still largely spent stimulus money on “brown,” or fossil-fuel based, industry, as opposed to green industry. “Around the world we have stimulated business as usual instead of change,” Jackson says.
There were a few pieces of good news: The renewable energy sector grew 10% globally in 2020, which will have long-lasting impacts, and wind and solar capacity continues to grow. The Global Methane Pledge to drastically cut emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas announced at COP26 could help greenhouse gas emissions decrease (this doesn’t help carbon dioxide levels, but could still help global temperatures, and Jackson adds we should be paying more attention to all three major greenhouse gases, adding nitrous oxide alongside carbon and methane). The Global Coal Pledge—which saw more than 40 countries commit to phasing out coal—could be good news for the climate, too, but Jackson adds that the language change from a “phase out” to “phase down” was disappointing, and “it remains to be seen what actual changes happen because of that.”
Coal use is something Jackson plans to pay special attention to in the coming years. Experts thought that global coal use peaked in 2013, and that it’s been declining ever since. But COVID recovery plans helped coal use jump back to just below that peak. “Coal was the only fossil fuel where we thought we had seen the permanent global peak six or seven years ago, and [now] we could surpass that peak next year,” he says. “It would be genuinely bad news.”
Looking to 2022, Jackson is concerned about fossil fuel emissions increasing even more, especially if coal use grows and transportation ramps back up fully to pre-pandemic levels. “If the world’s economy roars back,” he says, “we could see a new global record in fossil carbon emissions next year.”