Global carbon dioxide emissions spiked to historic levels in 2021, offsetting the pandemic-induced decline from its previous year, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The 6% growth in CO2 emissions output was largely driven by a dramatic increase in coal usage brought on in part by record high natural gas prices, the IEA analysis found.
The report, which does not include the impact from a rise in energy prices triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights the delicate balance global economies must now face, in addressing a global supply shortage, while pushing for investments in renewable energy to stay in line with broader climate ambitions.
Oil prices climbed to near 14 years-highs this week, as the U.S. and UK announced a ban on Russian oil and gas imports. The European Union, which relies on Russia for roughly 45% of its natural gas needs, said it would reduce imports by two-thirds by the end of the year.
“There are many areas [where] we can take steps which can help to reduce the Russian oil and gas, but at the same time bring us closer to our climate course,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, in an interview with the Financial Times.
The spike in 2021 comes after coronavirus-related restrictions led to the largest annual drop in CO2 emissions in 2020, with a 6% decline. That led to calls for governments to put sustainability at the center of their economic recovery.
But the surge in energy prices brought on by soaring demand, coming out of the pandemic have complicated those ambitions.
Coal accounted for more than 40% of the growth in CO2 emissions, largely because the cost of operating coal power plants were “considerably lower” that those of gas power plants for much of 2021.
“Gas-to-coal switching pushed up global CO2 emissions from electricity generation by well over 100 million tonnes, notably in the United States and Europe where competition between gas and coal power plants is tightest,” the report said.
China led all nations in CO2 emissions growth, led by a sharp increase in electricity demand that relied heavily on coal power. Electricity demand in China grew by 10% in 2021, the largest ever experienced in China.
The sobering report comes just months after world leaders gathered in Glasgow to reaffirm their commitment to curb harmful emissions to maintain the Paris climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius by the middle of the century. While the pact stopped short of calls to eliminate the use of coal altogether, it called for a “phase down,” under pressure from India and China.
Even with a rebound in fossil fuel usage, the IEA said clean energy continued to gain market share. Renewable energy sources and nuclear power contributed to a higher share of global electricity generation than coal, the report said. Renewables-based generation reached a record high, while output from wind and solar energy also increased.
Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita
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