Global CO2 Emissions Have Returned to Near Pre-Pandemic Levels

A new report shows carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels jumped by more this year than they fell during 2020

Smoke stacks of a coal fired power plant in China during winter
Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels fell more than 5 percent last year but jumped back up in 2021. AerialPerspective Images via Getty Images

Before the global pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions were at an all-time high. Then lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 inadvertently led to a decrease in the burning of fossil fuels, but the dip in emissions was short-lived. 

According to a new analysis, global carbon emissions are already bouncing back to near record-high levels seen before the Covid-19 pandemic. The report puts added pressure on leaders currently gathering at the world’s largest climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss the rapid cuts needed to tackle climate change.

“What is surprising is that [the rebound in emissions] happened so quickly, in spite of the fact that much of the global economy has not yet recovered,” said study co-author Corinne LeQuere, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, in an interview at the climate talks in Glasgow. “This is really a reality check.”

When industries burn fossil fuels like coal and oil for energy, they release heat-trapping gasses that lead to atmospheric warming. Human activity has warmed the planet by about 1 degree Celcius (around 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, which has intensified disasters like floods, droughts, and wildfires. Before the pandemic, global emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil were at record levels—then lockdowns saw global emissions fall by 5.4 percent. Authors of the 16th annual Global Carbon Project (GCP) report estimate that the world will release 36.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by the end of 2021 despite the pandemic, barely trailing the 36.7 billion metric tons released in 2020.

Emissions were expected to creep up as countries bounced back to pre-pandemic activities, but some countries are polluting more now than ever before. Much of the increased carbon emissions are coming from China, a nation notably absent from the COP26 global climate summit. Greenhouse gas emissions by China were 7 percent higher this year when compared to 2019, and India’s emissions were 3 percent higher. The United States, the European Union, and the rest of the world report totals below pre-pandemic pollution levels, reports Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press.

“It’s not the pandemic that will make us turn the corner,” said LeQuere. “It’s the decisions that are being taken this week and next week. That’s what’s going to make us turn the corner. The pandemic is not changing the nature of our economy.” 

The scientists behind the report said next year could set a new record for global emissions as travel and crude oil use increase, according to the Guardians Damian Carrington. World leaders are trying to prevent a global average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the threshold scientists say is necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. However, the report estimates this milestone will be surpassed in just 11 years at the current rate of pollution.

“To achieve net-zero by 2050, we must cut emissions every year by an amount comparable to that seen during Covid,” said study co-author Pierre Friedlingstein from the University of Exeter in a statement. "Personally, I think [the 1.5C goal] is still alive, but the longer we wait, the harder it will get...we need immediate action and reductions.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.