Global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) rose 6.4% to 51bn tonnes in 2021, eclipsing the pre-pandemic peak of 50.3bn tonnes in 2019 as global economic activity resumed, International Monetary Fund (IMF) data showed.
The increase cancelled out the 4.6% decline in emissions to 47.9bn tonnes seen in 2020, when lockdowns restricted global mobility and hampered economic activity.
Emissions bouncing back in 2021 means that the world is no closer to reaching its 1.5°C targets, despite the global commitments to achieving this target by 2050 made at COP26.
The figures demonstrate the uphill task facing governments and corporations to combat climate change and global warming.
The current energy crisis and the disruption to global energy markets caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine, not to mention to current heatwaves, are all hindering progress towards achieving the target.
Much of Western Europe is seeing record temperatures, reaching 40°C in Germany, France and the UK, and heatwaves are now happening more often, and for longer periods.
The rapid recovery in emissions dashed any hopes that 2021 would mark the beginning of a more permanent downward shift in emissions. Instead, total emissions have climbed significantly above pre-pandemic levels
Emissions from the manufacturing and the energy sectors contributed the most to 2021’s increases, the IMF said, while increases from transportation and households were more muted as the pandemic weighed on global mobility.
This was particularly evident with the emergence of the omicron variant of coronavirus in the fourth quarter of 2021. The public health policy measures in many countries drove down the emissions of households and of the electricity sector.
The IMF warned that it would be important to monitor the emissions of both of these sectors as economies fully reopen in the context of historically high fossil fuel-based energy prices.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that limiting atmospheric warming to the key level of around 1.5°C requires global GHG emissions to peak by 2025 at the latest.
However, separate figures published in March in the journal Nature demonstrated that global annual emissions of CO2 only rose from 33.3bn tonnes in 2020 to 34.9bn tonnes in 2021, representing a 4.8% increase.
Despite rising case numbers and new variants, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on CO2 emissions therefore appears to be less in 2021 compared to 2020 owing to a reduction in restrictive policies.
Crucially, Nature warned that these 2021 emissions consumed 8.7% of the remaining carbon budget for limiting anthropogenic warming to 1.5°C, which if current trajectories continue, might be used up in 9.5 years at 67% likelihood.
What this means is that the world is nowhere near meeting the 1.5°C for global warming if “business as usual” continues and emissions are not drastically reduced.
The IMF used data from national and international statistical organisations to provide data to help monitor the transition to lower carbon use, and published in its Climate Change Indicators Dashboard.
The new data from the climate dashboard underscore what some scientists have warned: time is running out.
The IMF’s data chimes with figures from the IEA released in April, which similarly reported that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to a record high of 36.3bn tonnes, as coal dominated the world economy’s rebound from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The 2bn tonne rise was the largest in history in absolute terms, more than offsetting the pandemic-induced decline seen in 2020.
The numbers make clear that the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis has not been the sustainable recovery that IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol called for during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.
He had called for a green recovery after the pandemic that would see investment of up to $3 trillion in renewables energy.
However, a mixture of rocketing demand for electricity and a resumption in activity in the manufacturing and the energy sectors means that hopes for a pandemic-inspired permanent reduction in emissions will not now take place.
However, the IEA had identified as early as December 2020 that emissions could rebound quickly. Birol said that a recovery in emissions, with December 2020 emissions being 2% higher than in December 2019, suggested a "return to carbon-intensive business-as-usual." December 2020 emissions were 60mn tonnes higher than those in December 2019.