Environmentalists were secretly relieved last year when greenhouse gas emissions plummeted due to closures caused by the pandemic, although no one had the illusion that such a one-off act could change anything on the macro-scale of a bleak reality. The situation has gone too far to be so easy to resolve. Indeed, the warnings of climate experts went in that direction to point out that the time to reverse climate consequences expires in 2020 at the latest, but, much much earlier, when the psychological limit of 2 degrees of average global warming was expected to break.
The closures caused by the pandemic represent the largest drop in greenhouse gas emissions since World War II, according to the most recent data from the International Environment Agency (IEA). The overall decline was 6 percent, but the variations by region and time of year are huge. Global emissions fell by almost 2 billion tons in 2020, the largest absolute drop in history. Most of it - about a billion tonnes, more than Japan's annual emissions - is due to less oil use for road transport and aviation. As tourism and economic activity accelerate around the world, oil consumption and emissions are rising again. The record increase in electric vehicle sales is not enough to offset the growth in emissions caused by the increase in road traffic worldwide, according to the IEA.
A year after the first quarantines, the International Environment Agency issued a new report that yielded the expected results, showing that the sharp drop in greenhouse gases in 2020 was only a one-off exception, which did not change anything. Thus, already in December last year, CO2 emissions related to energy production (electricity, but also heating plants) were 2 percent (or 60 million tons of CO2) higher than in 2019. This shows that changes in energy policy are not really seen in CO2 savings. This then means that the changes are too slow and not yet yielding results, all indicating a notorious lack of political will, resulting from a lack of public pressure, and holding politicians accountable for poorly done jobs. Similarly, the IEA, whose director emphasizes that "the recovery of global carbon emissions late last year is a sharp warning that not enough is being done to accelerate the transition to clean energy around the world. If governments do not move quickly with the right energy policies, it could jeopardize the global historic opportunity to make 2019 the final peak of global emissions," said Dr. Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director. The Agency added that "in March 2020, the IEA called on governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery. But our numbers show that we are returning to our usual carbon-intensive business. This year is crucial for international climate action - and it began with high hopes - but these latest issues are a stark reminder of the immense challenge we face in the rapid transformation of the global energy system.
Short-term closures of economies led to a sharp drop in greenhouse gases in April 2020, but new openings accelerated countries' need to recover as quickly as possible, leading to increased energy demand that was not accompanied by environmental energy policies, hence data on 60 million tonnes. CO2 was released into the atmosphere in 2020 compared to December 2019. The overall result at the moment is that many economies are currently recording a higher increase in greenhouse gas emissions than before the corona crisis. For example, China, which was the largest global distributor of secondary medical equipment (masks and the like), increased its emissions by 75 million tons, or 0.8 percent. China was the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic and lift restrictions, boosting its economic activity and emissions from April onwards. China was the only major economy to grow in 2020. The situation with the increase is similar in the USA, Brazil, India, and precise data are available on the IEA website.
U.S. experts point out that without the pandemic, last year's increase in greenhouse gases would have been the absolute largest ever recorded. Now, in 2021, since we have not acted in the previous 30 years, we have no choice but to abruptly stop releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050, and even if we succeed in this almost impossible endeavor, the situation will not improve immediately. If we reduce emissions to zero by the set deadline, the climate will slowly stabilize, but not in one generation.
Global emissions from the electricity sector decreased by 450 million tons in 2020. This is partly the result of lower electricity demand, but also an increase in electricity production by solar panels and wind. In order for the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, in particular limiting global warming to well below 2 ° C, a drop in emissions in the electricity sector of around 500 million tonnes needs to occur every year. An even larger annual drop in emissions from electricity generation would be needed to bring the world to 1.5 ° C warming. In other words, political targets announce a two percent reduction in warming, but science now shows that this is no longer enough to stop the cascading decay of ecosystems.
Given all this bad data, experts are beginning to stress that climate change is not about individual choice, which seems necessary as more politicians have tried to place the responsibility on citizens' private choices. Brought to the wall, scientists are slowly reaching a consensus, stressing that solutions to the climate crisis "go far beyond short-term individual responsibilities; it will ultimately require collective and continuous structural reform in all major sectors of the economy."
Moreover, last year's experience, backed by IEA data, shows, for example, that airplane flying (which fell 75 percent last year), which Europe specifically considers to be the responsibility of the individual, did not actually contribute as much to the overall CO2 drop. New data from U.S. scientists shows that CO2 would fall by just 2.5 percent if the aviation industry collapsed completely. Why? Due to systemic factors. In contrast, the most significant savings would be made in the electricity and heat generation sector, which, according to U.S. scientists, still contributes the most to global warming, accounting for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a sector that, due to quarantine, has demanded higher energy consumption worldwide. Therefore, scientists around the world are currently concluding that it is necessary to reform this sector. And to make matters worse, it is a sector for which there are already numerous and diverse solutions whose combination can contribute to a significant improvement in the situation with the climate crisis but also lift people out of energy poverty. So, this is a problem for which political and technological solutions already exist. But they are first and foremost socio-economically revolutionary, and such solutions cost capital a great deal of power, so they are simply not implemented.