The pandemic barely dented the huge rise in carbon emissions since 1990

The plane truth about emissions.
The plane truth about emissions.
Image: Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
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Even in 2020, a pandemic year—when planes sat on the ground, car travel seized up, ships stayed in their berths, and economic activity stalled everywhere—fossil fuel emissions fell by just 5.4%. And then, in 2021, they will rise again by a projected 4.9%, a “bigger than expected” rebound, according to researchers from the Global Carbon Project (GCP), which compiled the data.

For sobering context, greenhouse gas emissions have to drop by 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030 to stay on track towards the goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The near-return of emissions to pre-covid-19 levels has thwarted hopes of a “green recovery” from the pandemic. “You could say the recovery packages have delivered more in emissions than we were hoping—a little bit too dirty in the recovery packages and not enough low-carbon expenditure,” Glen Peters, the research director of the Center for International Climate Research, said at a media briefing.

The new GCP report arrives in the midst of the ongoing COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where world leaders have been trying to find ways to slash emissions and curtail the worst effects of climate change. To any delegates paying attention, the data serve as a reminder of how much has to be done—how permanently and drastically human activities have to be changed, even beyond the sharp but temporary transformations forced by the pandemic.

C02 emissions stayed flat over the past decade

The GCP report also offered a small—and heavily qualified—piece of welcome news. While burning fossil fuels make up more than 90% of all global emissions, a significant part is also made up of shifts in land use. When a forest is cut down to make way for farmland, for instance, the land-use change leads to a rise in emissions.

Earlier reports estimated that emissions from land-use changes rose by a third between 2000 and 2020. But the underlying datasets of land use have recently been revised, and subsequent calculations show, in fact, that land use emissions have dipped by a third during that 20-year period. When this reduction is set off against the rise in fossil fuel emissions, the result is a surprising discovery: that carbon dioxide emissions stayed flat between 2010 and 2020.

But these conclusions come with stern caveats. The process of calculating emissions from land use changes is freighted with uncertainty. “It is too early to judge if the trend in land-use emissions is robust,” Julia Pongratz, a geographer at the University of Munich and one of the GCP report’s authors, told Nature.

Besides, as the world opens up further in the wake of the pandemic, and as economic activity climbs on the back of stimulus programs across countries, a further spike in fossil fuel emissions can still erode any gains from land use changes. And there are signs that such a spike is already happening. The demand for oil is surging, and the GCP report suggested coal use will soon outstrip its 2014 peak, largely due to new coal-burning plants in India and China. It isn’t, by any means, time for COP26 delegates to take it easy yet.