A China-led recovery from the economic effects of coronavirus restrictions caused global carbon dioxide emissions to rebound late last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has claimed.

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Worldwide CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% in the full year of 2020, equivalent to nearly 2 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent, the Paris-based body said in a new report released on Tuesday.

Most of this — around 1 billion tonnes — was due to lower use of oil for road transport and aviation, the IEA report, "Global Energy Review: CO2 Emissions in 2020", said.

Overall, emissions from transport fell 14% below 2019 levels, it found.

Effects of easing lockdowns

Demand for primary energy fell 4% from 2019 levels and emissions from the global power sector fell by 2.3%, due to lockdown restrictions and an increased role for renewable energy sources, the IEA report said.

By the end of the year, however, global energy-related emissions were 2% — or 60 million tonnes — higher than in December 2019 as economic activity in several major economies began responding to the easing of lockdown restrictions, the IEA report found.

China was the only country to record an overall increase in emissions last year, sending out 75 million tonnes more CO2 than in 2019 — a rise of 0.8% — the IEA said. China was the only country in the world to record higher overall emissions in the aviation sector in 2020.

In India, the third biggest emitter behind China and the US, emissions overtook 2019 levels in September.

Road transport revival

An increase in road transport in large developing nations was also identified as a factor behind rebounding emissions towards the end of 2020, with India and Brazil ending the year with emissions from this sector well above 2019 levels.

A record increase in sales of electric vehicles was described as insufficient to offset the growth in emissions caused by the uptick in road traffic around the world.

“The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

“If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definite peak in emissions,” he added.

Against a backdrop of lower overall demand in 2020, the share of renewables in power generation rose to 29%, from 27% in 2019.

Emissions in the US and the European Union remained below 2019 levels, although in both cases December output was approaching the previous year’s levels.

The agency welcomed 2050 net-zero emissions pledges from a number of large economies, but warned that more must be done sooner.

Vaccine driver

Rising vaccination rates and reduced restrictions in developed economies are expected to drive a further rebound in CO2 output in 2021.

“If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed — and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies — global emissions are likely to increase in 2021,” said Birol.

The IEA report came days after a United Nations report showing that nations submitting updated climate pledges are nowhere near the level of action required to tackle global warming.

The IEA will on 18 May publish what it describes as the world’s first comprehensive roadmap for the energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.