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China fueling rebound in global carbon emissions in 2021

11 January 2021 Amena Saiyid

Global carbon emissions are set to rebound in 2021 because Asian countries, notably China, have resumed coal-fired generation as part of their push to restore their economies, the head of the International Energy Association (IEA) warned 11 January.

"Today our numbers show China's C02 emissions are higher than pre-pandemic levels," Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said, stopping short of revealing the exact increase in emissions that IEA has observed. He said the IEA would be in a better position to reveal the percentage increase when the organization releases its global energy outlook in April.

The increase in global carbon emissions appears to be on track to reverse an estimated 7% decline in global emissions seen in 2020 due mainly to pandemic-induced lockdowns that brought virtually all economic activity to a halt, Birol said.

The pandemic-struck year saw emissions cut by an estimated 2.4 billion metric tons, shattering previous records of annual declines, such as 0.9 billion metric tons at the end of World War II or 0.5 billion metric tons in 2009 when the global financial crisis hit.

As of September 2020, IHS Markit estimated global carbon emissions declined by about 5% year-over-year from 47.1 billion metric tons.

Birol attributed the emissions increase expected in 2021 to the many governments that did not incorporate sustainable energy policies in place as they restarted their economic engines. Pointing to China, Birol said China is currently the leading contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions as it was the first country in 2020 that came out of the pandemic crisis to restart its economic engine.

Gearing up for COP-26

During the same briefing, Birol also announced a series of meetings and reports to help countries help develop and commit to net zero carbon emissions goals ahead of the 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-26) meeting in Glasgow, Scotland IEA plans to release its first comprehensive road map on 18 May for the entire global energy sector to reach the net zero emissions target by mid-century, he said.

The organization also is set to hold its second clean energy transitions summit on 31 March with the UK, and launch a high-level commission on an innovative energy future, which Denmark Danish Energy, Climate and Utilities Minister Dan Jørgensen will chair. The commission will be charged with evaluating economic impacts on communities including how to address issues of affordability and environmental justice, and provide recommendations. The IEA, in partnership with the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, also will release a report in late May on financing clean energy transitions for emerging economies like Brazil, China, and India.

The meeting, the reports, and the commission's recommendations are meant to serve as a prelude for the international climate meeting that was postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic. The idea is to get all countries on the same page before COP-26, Birol wsaid.

Pivotal Year

Despite the news about increasing emissions, Birol said he is looking to countries to keep clean energy technologies at the forefront as they craft stimulus packages.

He said 2020 was a pivotal year because it showed a dramatic decline in demand for all fossil fuels, notably coal, which reached its lowest point since World War II, while "renewables remained immune."

"There's a significant new political alignment on climate that opens up a new world of possibilities for all of us," Birol added.

In the last year, countries in the EU, as well as China, Japan, others joined in making net zero commitments, Birol observed, and he said he isconfident that the US will follow suit under President-elect Joe Biden.

Also speaking at the press event, IEA Deputy Executive Director David Turk agreed with Birol. Turk was formerly the deputy assistant secretary for international climate and technology at the US Department of Energy under the Obama administration. "Look at the personnel, look at President-elect and look at his key nominees to different positions," Turk said.

Biden has appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the presidential envoy on climate, former Governor Jennifer Granholm as the Energy Secretary. He also has nominated former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, former natural resources associate director at the White House Office of Management and Budget, to serve as his domestic climate policy coordinators.

"For anyone who knows these individuals, let alone put them all together, this is not a group that will be satisfied with nice speeches, and long-term targets," Turk said. "This is a group that will be very much focused on real-world action, the how. How do you do this in the near term, how do you reduce your emissions in the near term, how do you provide jobs for your population, how do you have people-centric, community-centric measures going forward."

Posted 11 January 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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