Climate Change

Coal use pushes global energy-related CO2 emissions to all-time high in 2021

Coal global energy CO2 emissions all time high 2021

Photo: SeagullNady from Pixabay


March 10, 2022






March 10, 2022





The increase in the use of coal last year was the main factor driving up global energy-related CO2 emissions by over two billion tons, their largest ever annual rise in absolute terms, according to the IEA.

The International Energy Agency said the energy sector’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 more than offset the previous year’s pandemic-induced decline as the world economy rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 crisis and relied heavily on coal to power growth.

The recovery of energy demand in 2021 was compounded by adverse weather and energy market conditions – notably the spikes in natural gas prices – which led to more coal being burned. Global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by over two million tons or 6% to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest level in history, IEA said.

Emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity

The data includes estimates for methane, nitrous oxide and flaring-related emissions. The world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off – and that an accelerated energy transition contributes to global energy security and lower energy prices for consumers, the report said.

Renewables, nuclear plants had higher power output than fossil fuel sector

Coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021, reaching an all-time high of 15.3 billion tonnes. CO2 emissions from natural gas rebounded well above their 2019 levels to 7.5 billion tonnes. At 10.7 billion tonnes, CO2 emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021, mainly in the aviation sector.

Global hydropower output dropped last year due to droughts

Renewable energy sources and nuclear power still provided a higher share of global electricity generation than coal. Renewables-based generation reached an all-time high, exceeding 8 PWh in 2021, which was 500 TWh above the 2020 level. Output from wind and solar power units increased by 270 TWh and 170 TWh, respectively, while hydro generation declined due to the impacts of drought, notably in the United States and Brazil.

The use of coal for electricity generation in 2021 was intensified by record-high natural gas prices. The costs of operating existing coal power plants across the United States and many European power systems were considerably lower than those of gas power plants for the majority of 2021. Gas-to-coal switching pushed up global CO2 emissions from electricity generation by well over 100 million tonnes, notably in the United States and Europe where competition between gas and coal power plants is tightest.

China more than offset emissions drop in rest of world over past two years

The rebound of global CO2 emissions above pre-pandemic levels has largely been driven by China, where they increased by 750 million tonnes between 2019 and 2021. China was the only major economy to experience economic growth in both 2020 and 2021.

The rise of fossil gas prices to records resulted in a jump in coal demand

The two-year increase in emissions in the most populous nation more than offset the aggregate decline in the rest of the world. In 2021, China’s CO2 emissions rose to more than 11.9 billion tonnes, accounting for 33% of the global total.

China’s rise in emissions resulted largely from a sharp increase in electricity demand, by an all-time high of almost 700 TWh or 10%, that leaned heavily on coal power. Coal was used to meet more than half of the rise.

Renewables growth rate slowed in India, giving way to coal

CO2 emissions in India rebounded strongly in 2021 to rise above 2019 levels, driven by growth in coal use for electricity generation. Coal-fired generation reached an all-time high, jumping 13% above its 2020 level, while renewables growth slowed to one-third of the five-year average rate.

Global economic output in advanced economies recovered to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but CO2 emissions rebounded less sharply, signaling a more permanent trajectory of structural decline. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2021 were 4% below their 2019 level. In the European Union, they were 2.4% lower. In Japan, emissions dropped by 3.7% in 2020 and rebounded by less than 1% in 2021.

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