Carbon levels are rising again after brief COVID-19 drop

Steam comes out of the chimney of the coal-fired power station Neurath, Germany, Oct 24, 2021. (MICHAEL PROBST / AP)

Global carbon dioxide pollution returned to a pre-pandemic level this year, according to an early estimate by the research group Global Carbon Project prepared for the COP26 talks occurring in Glasgow.

The new numbers vividly illustrate the global challenge posed by decades of delayed climate policy and investment. To meet the 2050 goal of the Paris Agreement, which calls for limits to warming temperatures, nations would now have to cut emissions every year by an amount greater than the combined carbon output of Germany and Saudi Arabia. 

Emissions snapped back like a rubber band … That's the same thing we saw after 2008, where emissions dropped 1.5 percent in 2009 and then jumped 5 percent in 2010 as if nothing had changed.

Robert Jackson, Earth system science professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project

Emissions from fossil-fuel burning are expected to rise this year by 4.9 percent above the 2020 level, to 36.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or nearly the 2019 level. Last year, emissions fell 5.4 percent after COVID-19-related quarantines and policies limited economic activity in much of the world. 

"Emissions snapped back like a rubber band," said Robert Jackson, an Earth system science professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project. "That's the same thing we saw after 2008, where emissions dropped 1.5 percent in 2009 and then jumped 5 percent in 2010 as if nothing had changed."

Coal use worldwide peaked in 2014, and researchers had noted with some relief that coal was in decline. This year has challenged that assumption, with coal-burning rising above its 2019 level, although still below the record year. 

"The bounce in coal is quite surprising," said Glen Peters, research director for the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, and a Global Carbon Project member.

During the previous decade, carbon dioxide emissions fell in 23 countries that make up about a quarter of the world's total. This group includes the US, which is the second biggest annual polluter and the biggest historically, Japan, Mexico, and 14 European countries.

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A man stands by fans spraying air mixed with water vapor deployed by donors to cool down pedestrians along a street in Iraq's capital Baghdad on June 30, 2021 amidst a severe heat wave. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Energy use from renewable sources grew more than 10 percent this year, on par with the recent average—despite an unprecedented temporary decline in energy use. 

The data add even greater urgency to the already breathless work this week and next in Glasgow, where nations are struggling to execute promises made in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Global Carbon Project scientists revised their carbon budget, which is a kind of scientific ledger for estimating how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can hold before locking in a temperature threshold. 

To have a 50 percent shot at keeping global heating below 1.5 C, beginning in 2022, the world can emit no more than 11 years worth of carbon dioxide at the current rate. To keep the temperature rise below 1.7 C or 2 C, there are 20 or 32 years worth of emissions left. 

To have a 50 percent shot at keeping global heating below 1.5 C, beginning in 2022, the world can emit no more than 11 years worth of carbon dioxide at the current rate. To keep the temperature rise below 1.7 C or 2 C, there are 20 or 32 years worth of emissions left

"It's not a threshold that once you reach a specific temperature that everything goes berserk," said Corinne Le Quere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and a Global Carbon Project member. "But the more warming, the more risks we take of destabilizing all kinds of aspects of the climate system."

A revision to UN deforestation figures led the Global Carbon Project to a surprising new conclusion about carbon dioxide emissions from land. Forest regrowth is larger than previously thought, which means trees and soil have soaked up more carbon dioxide than expected over the last 2 decades. 

The deforestation rate, less the absorption rate, leaves a net decline in emissions that makes the 2021 estimate of 2.9 gigatons just 64 percent of the early 2000s rate. These numbers, however, are much less certain than the the fossil-fuel consumption data, given the complexity of estimating deforestation and regrowth. 

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The revised but tentative deforestation numbers—combined with the historically small increases in the carbon dioxide pollution rate the last decade—is a nice surprise in a world in need of one. 

"That land use change emissions are likely considerably lower than previously expected means that it's a lot easier for us to turn global forests into a net sink rather than a source of carbon dioxide," said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy a the Breakthrough Institute, who is not affiliated with the Global Carbon Project.