CO2 emissions at ‘highest level in history’ - IEA

15 March 2022

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 by over 2 billion tonnes to 36.3 billion tonnes, the highest ever level, as the world economy rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 crisis and relied heavily on coal to power that growth, according to a new International Energy Agency analysis ‘Global Energy Analysis: CO2 emissions in 2021’. It was also the largest ever annual rise in absolute terms, more than offsetting the previous year’s pandemic-induced decline.

The recovery of energy demand in 2021 was compounded by adverse weather and energy market conditions – notably the spikes in natural gas prices – which led to more coal being burned despite renewable power generation registering its largest ever growth.  

These energy statistics are based on the IEA’s detailed region-by-region and fuel-by-fuel analysis, drawing on the latest official national data and publicly available energy, economic and weather data. Combined with the methane emissions estimates that the IEA published last month and estimates of nitrous oxide and flaring-related CO2 emissions, the new analysis shows that overall greenhouse gas emissions from energy rose to their highest ever level in 2021.

The numbers make clear that the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis has not been the sustainable recovery that IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol called for during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. 

The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off – and that an accelerated energy transition contributes to global energy security and lower energy prices for consumers, said the IEA.

According to the analysis coal accounted for more than 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021, reaching an all-time high of 15.3 billion tonnes. 

CO2 emissions from natural gas rebounded well above their 2019 levels to 7.5 billion tonnes. At 10.7 billion tonnes, CO2 emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021, mainly in the aviation sector. 

Despite the rebound in coal use, renewable energy sources and nuclear power provided a higher share of global electricity generation than coal in 2021. 

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