Fossil fuel emissions set to rebound after Covid-19 reductions, IEA warns

The industry’s unanimous front in support of the combustion engine is not without its critics.

That is according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest global energy review, published today (2 March).

The review reveals that primary energy demand was down 4% globally in 2020, on a year-on-year basis, with the biggest drop in demand felt in the international transport space. Oil demand was down 8.6% and coal demand was down 4%.

These trends led to a 5.8% decrease in energy-related emissions – the steepest year-on-year decline since World War Two. The transport sector accounted for around half of the decrease.

The IEA acknowledges that renewable energy was not hit as hard as renewables and that many major power and utilities firms used the context of 2020 to accelerate decarbonisation plans. The share of renewables in global electricity emissions rose from 27% in 2019 to 29% in 2020, in the steepest increase in share on record.

However, it is warning that not enough has been done to ‘lock in’ the emissions reductions from the sector, given that they were mainly caused by a drop in demand than by major changes to policy, investment patterns or business models. Energy-related CO2 emissions in December 2020 were actually 2% higher than in December 2019, as many major economies eased lockdown restrictions for the Christmas period.

“We are putting the historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak of global emissions at risk,” IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol said.

“If in the next few months, governments do not put the right clean energy policies in place, we may well be returning to our carbon-intensive business as usual. This is in stark contrast with the ambitious commitments made by several governments one after the other.”

Birol is referring here to the flurry of national net-zero targets announced by the likes of Japan, South Korea and Canada in 2020, following on China’s carbon neutrality pledge for 2060.

While such targets have been broadly welcomed, a UN study published last week revealed that most nations do not have credible interim plans to back them up yet. Current Paris Agreement NDCs, if met, will only deliver a 1% reduction in global annual emissions by 2030, against a 2010 baseline, according to that research.

Oil and gas

The update from the IEA comes after it warned that methane emissions reductions in the oil and gas sector recorded during the pandemic could rebound.

Back in January, the Agency published a regulatory roadmap and a toolkit, designed to guide both policymakers seeking to update regulations on methane from the oil and gas sectors, and oil and gas firms looking to reduce their methane emissions. On the former, the IEA is keen to see nations including commitments on methane in their updated Paris Agreement Pledges ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year.

The IEA had previously faced accusations of being too stringent on the oil and gas sector and underestimating the pace of the transition to renewables, from green campaigners and investors alike. It has since signed a communique designed to prevent this issue from recurring and has accelerated its renewable energy predictions. The Agency’s Renewables 2020 analysis states that global wind and solar capacity will double by 2025.

Spotlight on business 

In related news, an analysis by climate data firm Arabesque has revealed that three in ten of the UK’s biggest businesses are generating levels of emissions incompatible with the Paris Agreement. 

The firm analysed emissions data from the FTSE100 and found that the practices of  31 listed corporates, including Anglo American, Antofagasta, BHP, Evraz, Fresnill, Polymetal, BP and Shell, would lead to warming of 2.7C or more by the end of the century if replicated across the private sector. 

Worryingly, many of the firms named as laggards have either set science-based climate targets or committed to doing so. 

Sarah George

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