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Carbon emissions shrank amid the pandemic -- they're back and worse than 2019

In December, global emissions were 2% higher than a year earlier, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Air pollution in China
China remains a big carbon emissions source.
DuKai Photographer/Getty Images

The world is returning to a typical way of business even after 2020's historic drop is global carbon emissions, and the International Energy Agency is worried we may be on a very bad path with no lessons learned from an opportunity to put green energy at the heart of rebuilding plans. That's the blunt takeaway from new data the IEA released Tuesday.

The devil's in the details, like most things. It's true that in 2020, we saw the largest drop-off of global emissions since World War II; the IEA estimates emissions fell 6% from 2019 levels overall. However, the picture quickly changed as we hummed along through 2020. By December, emissions levels had risen 2% higher than levels recorded in December 2019. Somehow, the world managed to pollute even more during a pandemic. The 2% increase translated to 60 million more tons of carbon entering the Earth's atmosphere than a year earlier.

"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. 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 definitive peak in global emissions," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

And it's not any one country to blame. In China, emissions rose 0.8% last year as it emerged from the pandemic. India saw its emissions climb above 2019 levels. The US saw emissions fall 10% overall, but by December, they had approached the same levels as 2019.

While this is a warning sign, the IEA said it's cautiously optimistic that the world is getting its act together. China has laid out an aggressive carbon-neutral plan for the future and the US is once again part of the Paris Climate Agreement. The European Union, India and the UK are also forging ahead with steps to curb emissions in big ways.

The emissions drop in 2020 was equal to taking Japan's total emissions out of the global total two times over. As breathtaking as the statistic is, it's, frankly, going to take more reduction than that for humanity to meet its goals and keep planetary warming under 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

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