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Global Carbon Emissions Are Rebounding to Pre‑Covid Levels

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Mar 4, 2021

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Global carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 5.8% in 2020 as the pandemic slowed down the economy and forced people to stay at home, a new report has found. But as we inch back to a pre-pandemic ‘normalcy’, emissions are on the rise again and were, in fact, 2% higher in December 2020 than during the same period last year.

Titled “Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020“, the report was published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based autonomous organization working around sustainability. It found that the pandemic triggered the largest annual percentage decline in global carbon dioxide emissions since World War II. CO2 levels decreased by two billion tonnes, a result unprecedented in human history. The report deemed it as the “equivalent of removing all of the European Union’s emissions from the global total.”

Almost half of this reduction can be attributed to lower fuel usage for road transport and aviation during lockdowns. Due to limited industrial activity and transport, the demand for energy also fell by 4% in 2020 — leading to the corresponding drop in emissions.

The return to pre-pandemic levels of emissions now has experts concerned. “The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide… Our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, told the media.


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India, which is the world’s third-biggest emitter of CO2, witnessed a staggering decline of 40% in April 2020, compared to April 2019, owing to a complete lockdown imposed early on. This resulted in the “lowest recorded levels of air pollution in recent years in many major Indian cities.” However, emissions rose above 2019 levels by September itself as restrictions loosened and economic activities resumed.

Experts worry that an increase in economic activity will translate into rising CO2 emissions, noting that both GDP growth and CO2 emissions had simultaneously surged in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. “If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed — and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies — global emissions are likely to increase in 2021,” Birol notes.

In order to prevent that, the report recommends clean energy policies going forward. Experts have noted that taking care of the environment could help prevent future pandemics too. The cost of preventing future global health crises, in terms of policy changes over the next 10 years, would equate to just 2% of the estimated economic damage caused by Covid19, a previous study notes.

Urging policymakers to adopt sustainable recovery plans, Birol warned that “if governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.”

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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