CO2 emissions have risen to levels higher than what were recorded before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Covid-19 crisis saw the biggest drop in annual carbon dioxide emissions since the Second World War – with a 6% fall last year. The lowest point was in April, when many economies were still in lockdown but by December, levels had risen to the point where they were 2% - or 60 million tonnes - higher than the same month in 2019.

The IEA Director, Dr Fatih Birol, said: "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."

He said: "In March 2020, the IEA urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of their economic stimulus plans to ensure a sustainable recovery. But our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual."

The drop in global carbon emissions was measured at almost two billion tonnes, the biggest absolute decline in history.

Most of this, around one billion tonnes, was caused by less consumption of oil for road and air transport. As travel and economic activities pick up around the world oil consumption and associated emissions are rising again. Record sales of electric vehicles are not enough to offset this.

Global emissions from the electricity sector dropped by 450 million tonnes in 2020. This resulted partly from lower electricity demand but also from increases in electricity generation by solar PV and wind.

For the world to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, notably of limiting global warming to well below 2C, a decline in electricity sector emissions of around 500 million tonnes would need to occur every single year. Even greater annual drops in emissions from electricity generation would be required to put the world on a path in line with warming of 1.5C.

China, which was the only major economy to grow in 2020, had its emissions grow by 0.8% or 75 million tonnes.

Emissions in the United States fell by 10% in 2020. But on a monthly basis, after hitting their lowest levels in the spring, they started to bounce back.

In December, US emissions were approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. This was the result of accelerating economic activity as well as the combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favouring an increase in coal use.

In India, emissions rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity improved and restrictions were relaxed. In Brazil, the rebound of road transport activity after the April low drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand in the later months of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels throughout the final quarter.

The International Energy Agency says it will publish a comprehensive roadmap for the energy sector to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

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The IEA report on energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 has singled out one sector which saw emissions rise, while Covid-19 restrictions saw the pollution fall in all other areas.

The report says that the world's overall energy-related emissions fell by an estimated 7% in 2020, the largest drop in history and around five times the size of the decline in 2009 following the global financial crisis. But emissions from SUVs, which are typically larger and less fuel-efficient than other cars, are estimated to have seen a slight increase of 0.5%.

It says: "Consumption from SUVs reached 5.5 million barrels per day in 2020. Remarkably, we estimate that the increase in the overall SUV fleet in 2020 cancelled out the declines in oil consumption by SUVs that resulted from Covid-related lockdown measures."

SUV emissions have almost tripled over the last decade adding an additional 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In advanced economies CO2 emissions from all other sectors including electricity generation heating of buildings, manufacturing and heavy industry – and other forms of transport, remained flat or declined.

But the IEA says the growth in emissions from SUVs is accelerating and is on par with the increase in emissions from road freight activity during the last decade. SUV emissions are now comparable to the whole global maritime industry including international shipping.

While sales of SUVs fell in 2020, their share of car markets has increased. 

The IEA report says the savings in emissions achieved by the growth in preference for electric cars has been completely cancelled out by the growing popularity of SUVs. While more electric SUVs have become available, close to 97% of SUVs sold in 2020 had fossil fuel-powered engines.

It says: "For the world to shift onto a path aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, as mapped out in our Sustainable Development Scenario, electric SUVs’ share of total SUV sales needs to grow rapidly to over 35% by 2030." 

But adds "Higher sales of electric SUVs rather than smaller electric cars would increase electricity demand for charging vehicles and also demand for raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt."