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Carbon emissions on track to surge as world rebounds from pandemic

People walk past a power plant in New York on Monday. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Global carbon emissions are expected to surge this year as parts of the world begin to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. They are on track to reach the second largest annual rise on record, according to a new projection by the International Energy Agency.

Global energy demand is on track to surpass 2019 levels, alongside continued growth in alternative energies, the Paris-based organization found.

Environmentalists had hoped that pandemic-related declines in emissions-fueling activity might signal a shift in consumption that could continue, but the sobering estimates foretell a different outcome.

“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, told the BBC.

The numbers also speak to the challenges ahead for President Biden, who is set to host dozens of world leaders this week for a virtual climate change summit. Biden has pledged to put the United States back at the forefront of efforts to counter climate change, in a break with president Donald Trump’s policies.

Psychological research shows that climate change can alter an individual's mental health both directly and indirectly, impacting how we respond to this crisis. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Biden will hold a big climate summit this week to reestablish U.S. leadership. Not everyone may follow.

A United Nations report released Monday found greenhouse gas concentrations continued to increase through 2020. “We are on the verge of the abyss,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said at a news conference after the report launched, Agence France-Presse reported.

With coal, oil and gas consumption kicking back up as economies reopen, the IEA predicted energy-related carbon emissions will increase by 4.8 percent year-on-year.

Carbon emissions declined by 5.8 percent in 2020 — the largest drop on record. The expected surge this year would leave 2021 levels around 1.2 percent below 2019.

Global energy demand contracted by 4 percent in 2020, the largest decline since World War II. In 2021, energy use is expected to increase by 4.6 percent — offsetting last year’s losses with a net increase of 0.5 percent above 2019 levels, according to the IEA. The largest demand is predicted to come from emerging markets and developing economies.

Several factors could ultimately lead to lower — or higher — energy and carbon emission rates.

“The outlook for 2021 … depends on vaccine rollouts, the extent to which the Covid‑19-induced lockdowns scarred economies, and the size and effectiveness of stimulus packages,” according to the report.

In one scenario, global energy demand could surpass 2019 levels by nearly 2 percent if transportation levels, particularly aviation, return to pre-pandemic rates. IEA, however, estimated that aviation’s demand for oil will remain comparatively lower throughout 2021 as the airline industry continues to recover.

The 2020 decrease in CO2 emissions surpassed the overall drop in global energy demand because pandemic restrictions impacted carbon-emitting fuels like oil and coal the hardest, the IEA found.

At the height of restrictions in April of last year, global oil demand dropped by more than 20 percent, according to the IEA.

But demand for oil in 2021 is expected to increase by 6 percent, the largest rebound among carbon-emitting fuels. Global demand for coal is on course to similarly surge by 4.5 percent in 2021, offsetting its 2020 decline.

The one bright spot has been a steady increase in the use of renewable energies, which “have proven largely immune to the pandemic,” IEA found.

Renewable usage increased by 3 percent in 2020. In 2021, they are expected to generate some 30 percent of global electricity.

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