Report by the International Energy Agency – CO2 emissions increases substantially!

Global Energy Review 2021

CO2 emissions

Global CO2 emissions declined by 5.8% in 2020, or almost 2 Gt CO2 – the largest ever decline and almost five times greater than the 2009 decline that followed the global financial crisis. CO2 emissions fell further than energy demand in 2020 owing to the pandemic hitting demand for oil and coal harder than other energy sources while renewables increased. Despite the decline in 2020, global energy-related CO2 emissions remained at 31.5 Gt, which contributed to CO2 reaching its highest ever average annual concentration in the atmosphere of 412.5 parts per million in 2020 – around 50% higher than when the industrial revolution began.

In 2021 global energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to rebound and grow by 4.8% as demand for coal, oil and gas rebounds with the economy. The increase of over 1 500 Mt CO2 would be the largest single increase since the carbon-intensive economic recovery from the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, it leaves global emissions in 2021 around 400 Mt CO2, or 1.2%, below the 2019 peak.


Change in CO2 emissions by fuel, 1990-2021


CO2 emissions by fuel

Despite global economic activity rising above 2019 levels in 2021 and global energy demand rebounding above 2019 levels, we do not anticipate a full return of CO2 emissions to pre-crisis levels. Even with an increase in CO2 emissions from oil of over650 Mt CO2 in 2021, oil-related emissions are expected to recover only around half of the 2020 drop and thus should remain 500 Mt CO2 below 2019 levels. The likely partial recovery is entirely due to the continued impacts of the Covid‑19 pandemic and related restrictions on transport activity in 2021. CO2 emissions from international aviation are set to remain 200 Mt CO2 (or one-third) below pre-pandemic levels in 2021, while emissions from road transport and domestic aviation are on track to be close to 350 Mt CO2 (or 5%) below 2019 levels in 2021. A full recovery of global transport activity would push oil-related emissions above 2019 levels and increase global CO2 emissions by over 1.5%, well above 2019 levels.

Global coal use is anticipated to rebound in 2021 and drive an increase in global CO2 emissions of around 640 Mt CO2. This would push emissions from coal to 14.8 Gt CO2: 0.4% above 2019 levels and only 350 Mt CO2 short of the global high in coal-related CO2 emissions of 2014. The power sector accounted for less than 50% of the drop in coal-related emissions in 2020, but it accounts for 80% of the rebound, largely due to rapidly increasing coal-fired generation in Asia.

CO2 emissions from natural gas combustion are expected to increase by more than 215 Mt CO2 in 2021 to reach an all-time high of 7.35 Gt CO2, 22% of global CO2 emissions. Gas use in buildings and industry accounts for much of the trend, with demand in public and commercial buildings seeing the greatest drop in demand in 2020 but the biggest anticipated recovery in 2021. 

CO2 emissions by region

Emerging markets and developing economies now account for more than two-thirds of global CO2 emissions, while emissions in advanced economies are in a structural decline, despite an anticipated 4% rebound in 2021.

China’s emissions are likely to increase by around 500 Mt CO2. With energy demand and emissions already growing in 2020, in 2021 CO2 emissions in China should be 6%, or almost 600 Mt CO2, above 2019 levels. All fossil fuels should contribute to higher CO2 emissions in China in 2021, but coal is expected to dominate, contributing 70% to the increase, predominantly due to greater coal use in the power sector. Despite China’s rapid growth in generation from renewables, output from coal-fired power plants has increased by 330 TWh, or nearly 7%, between 2019 and 2021.

Economic recovery in India in 2021 is set to push emissions almost 200 Mt higher than 2020, leaving emissions 1.4% (or 30 Mt) above 2019 levels. A rebound in coal demand above 2019 levels drove the emissions increase in India, with the expected rise in coal-fired electricity generation in 2021 likely to be three times greater than the increase in generation from renewables. CO2 emissions in India are now broadly on par with emissions in the European Union at 2.35 Gt, although they remain two-thirds lower on a per capita basis and 60% below the global average.

In the United States, CO2 emissions in 2021 are expected to rebound by more than 200 Mt CO2 to 4.46 Gt CO2, yet remain 5.6% below 2019 levels and 21% below 2005 levels. CO2 emissions from coal are expected to be almost 12% below 2019 as coal use for electricity generation is likely to recover only 40% of the ground lost to renewables and natural gas in 2020. Oil use, the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, should remain almost 6% below 2019 levels as transport activity remains curtailed across 2021.

CO2 emissions are likely to rebound less in the European Union, as the economic outlook is dimmer than in other parts of the world. The expected increase of 80 Mt CO2 in 2021 will reverse only one-third of 2020’s drop. EU emissions in 2021 should stand at 2.4 Gt. Most of the 90 Mt CO2 drop in power sector emissions in 2020 will endure through 2021, with a slight anticipated increase in coal and gas-fired generation in 2021 reversing only 10% of the 2020 drop. The share of coal in electricity generation in the European Union has declined almost three-percentage points from 2019 to 2021, to less than 14%.

CO2 emissions from advanced economies have fallen by 1.8 Gt CO2 since 2000, and their share in global emissions has declined by twenty percentage points to less than one-third of the global total.

Oil demand in 2020 saw its biggest ever annual decline

Measures to restrain the spread of Covid‑19 and the ensuing recession triggered an estimated 8.5 mb/d (8.8%) drop in oil demand in 2020 – the largest ever decline in both absolute and relative terms. The transport sector, responsible for around 60% of total oil demand, was severely impacted by mobility restrictions in 2020. Jet fuel and kerosene demand dropped by 3.2 mb/d (41%), with air passenger traffic 66% below 2019 levels, and gasoline demand declined by over 3 mb/d (12%). Fuel oil demand dropped by 0.5 mb/d (8%) as bunker fuel demand declined along with international trade. Continued freight transport activity mitigated the decline in gasoil demand to 1.8 mb/d (6%), and LPG/ethane and naphtha demand was roughly unchanged as petrochemical feedstocks benefited from increased sales of packaging, hygiene and medical equipment. 

Oil demand’s rebound in 2021 is softened by a sluggish aviation sector

The improving economic environment will support a rebound in global oil demand of 5.4 mb/d, or 6% above 2020 levels. Despite the rebound, demand across 2021 is expected to remain 3.2% below 2019 levels.

Covid-related restrictions on mobility continue to suppress oil demand for transport in the first half of the year, even if the impact is much less than a year earlier. Demand will rise progressively in the second half of 2021, as vaccination campaigns ramp up and travel returns. Nonetheless, oil demand is not projected to reach pre-crisis levels with demand in the fourth quarter of 2021 expected to be 1.4 mb/d lower than pre-crisis levels. International aviation’s oil use is the slowest area to rebound and is expected to be 20% below 2019 levels even in December 2021. Excluding international aviation, oil demand is expected to return to 2019 levels in the last months of 2021.

Change in quarterly oil demand in 2020 and 2021 relative to 2019 levels


China is the only major economy where oil demand in 2020 was above 2019 levels, and demand in 2021 is expected to grow further to almost 9% above 2019 levels. Oil demand in China fell 1.3 mb/d in Q1 of 2020 as the virus hit China and mobility was curtailed; however, removal of restrictions and a sharp economic rebound through the rest of the year saw oil demand return to growth. Without the increase in demand in China in 2021, global demand would be an additional 1 mb/d, or a further one percentage point, below 2019 levels.

Oil demand in the United States is expected to remain around 0.8 mb/d below 2019 levels, mainly as a result of the continued impact of the pandemic-related restrictions during early 2021. Demand in the European Union remains 0.4 mb/d below 2019 levels, with continued lockdowns expected to weigh heavily on 2021 annual totals. In India, after further lockdowns in the first half of the year, rapid demand growth in the second half of the year is likely to push 2021 oil demand back on par with 2019 levels.

Coal demand experienced a major decline in 2020

Global coal demand declined 4% in 2020, the biggest drop since World War II. The main driver of the decline was lower electricity demand owing to Covid‑19 restrictions and the resulting economic downturn. Preferential dispatch or use of renewables in many markets squeezed gas and coal in the electricity mix. Lower gas prices saw significant fuel switching away from coal, particularly in the United States and the European Union, where coal use for power fell 20% and 21%, respectively. Overall, declines in the power sector accounted for over 40% of lower global demand in 2020. The Covid‑19 pandemic also affected industrial output, notably steel and cement, further lowering coal demand. 

Coal demand is rebounding strongly in 2021, driven by the power sector

In 2021, we expect recovering economic activity to reverse 2020’s decline in coal demand, with a 4.5% increase pushing global coal demand above 2019 levels. The power sector accounted for just over 40% of the drop in coal use in 2020, but the rapid increase in coal-fired generation in Asia sees it account for three-quarters of the rebound in 2021. Gas prices are also expected to rise in 2021, leading to some switching back to coal, notably in the United States and the European Union. The growth of coal consumption in 2021 is a continuation of the rebound in global coal demand that began in the final quarter of 2020. While an exceptional cold snap in December in northeast Asia was partly to blame for increasing coal demand, the rapid growth of coal-fired electricity generation is a reminder of coal’s central role in fuelling some of the world’s largest economies.

Coal consumption by region, 2000 to 2021


China is the only major economy where coal demand increased in 2020Strong economic growth underpins electricity demand in 2021, while post-Covid stimulus measures support production of steel, cement and other coal-intensive industrial products. We expect coal demand to increase by more than 4% in 2021, keeping demand well above the 2014 peak and reaching the highest ever levels for China.

The Chinese coal power fleet (including combined heat and power, or CHP, plants) represent around one-third of global coal consumption. The future of both Chinese and global coal demand depends on the Chinese electricity system. Electricity demand growth remains closely linked to economic growth in China, with demand increasing on a one-to-one ratio with GDP. What additional share of electricity demand is met by coal depends on how fast technologies such as renewables and nuclear come on line. Last year, despite the Covid‑19 outbreak, renewable capacity additions increased to over 100 GW, largely owing to rushes to complete projects before a subsidy phase-out deadline. Because of accelerating increases in renewables deployment, coal is expected to meet only 45% of the projected 8% increase in electricity demand in 2021.

In India, April 2020 marked the lowest point of coal consumption in many years as a significant economic slowdown in the second half of 2019 was followed by Covid lockdowns. The economic recovery since led to a continuous rebound of coal consumption, with a 6% increase in the fourth quarter of 2020. Higher coal demand was also driven by a decline in generation from hydro, following 2019’s exceptionally high output. Our estimate for India coal consumption assumes a strong economic rebound in 2021, pushing Indian GDP firmly above 2019 levels and driving up coal demand by almost 9% to 1.4% above 2019 levels.

In the United States, coal remains on a structural decline even though 2021 is projected to be the first growth year for consumption since 2013. Recovering electricity consumption and higher gas prices underpinned increased coal use in December 2020, the first monthly year-on-year increase since November 2018. Coal demand from the power sector is expected to rebound by 10% from the lows of 2020, though that still should not push coal demand above 2019 levels. Coal-fired electricity generation represents 90% of coal consumption in the United States and has more than halved since 2010, with demand falling by one-third between 2018 and 2020. 

In the European Union, coal-fired electricity generation is disappearing or becoming negligible in an increasing number of countries. Austria and Sweden closed their last coal power plants in 2020; others like Portugal will do so this year, and carbon allowances continue to deter coal generators. Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic account for two-thirds of EU coal use for power. In Germany, where coal and gas competition is more intense due to capacity availability, generation costs of gas and coal are moving in the same range. Therefore, small movements in fuel prices can change the relative competitiveness of coal and gas, and hence, of coal demand. With this uncertainty in mind, we expect coal demand to increase by only 4% in 2021, mostly pushed by the recovery of industrial consumption. This increase is a long way from reversing the 18% decline in demand in 2020.

A limited rebound for coal in the European Union in 2021 is primarily driven by economics, but recent political announcements imply continued declines in coal use. Throughout 2020 there were frequent announcements of green stimulus packages, zero emissions targets by mid-century, and plans to downsize coal generation capacity. 

Natural gas demand declined less than other fossil fuels in 2020

Global natural gas consumption declined by 75 bcm (or 1.9% y-o-y) in 2020. This represents the largest recorded drop in gas demand in absolute terms, but it would be on a par with 2009 in relative terms. The decline was concentrated in the first half of the year, when global gas consumption declined around 4% y-on-y, driven by exceptionally mild weather and Covid‑19 outbreaks. Gas was markedly less impacted than oil or coal demand in 2020, and a progressive recovery of gas demand was observed in the third quarter as lockdown measures eased, while seasonal electricity demand and competitive prices pushed up gas consumption.

This relative resilience can be partly explained by fuel switching in electricity generation. The switch was particularly remarkable in the United States where gas demand for electricity generation increased by around 2% y-o-y in spite of a declining electricity demand, while in Europe gas-fired generation benefited from low prices and a sharp recovery in carbon prices in the second half of 2020. In Asia, gas for power grew in China, India, and Korea. With gas With big declines in Russia and the Middle East, gas use in the power sector proving resilient nonetheless accounted for one-quarter of the decline in gas demand in 2020, the biggestother declines came from the buildings and industry sectors, contributing respectively to 30% and close to 20% of total gas demand drop in 2020. 

Gas bouncing back in 2021, but recovery remains fragile

Global gas demand is expected to recover 3.2% in 2021, erasing the losses in 2020, and pushing demand 1.3% above 2019 levels. This recovery in gas demand has been driven mainly by fast-growing markets – primarily in Asia and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East – and subject to uncertainties regarding industrial rebound or fuel price competitiveness. Demand in the European Union is expected to rebound to levels on a par with 2019. Growth in the United States is more gradual, with demand not expected to return to 2019 levels in 2021. Colder than average temperatures in the early months of 2021 across the northern hemisphere increased gas demand. Winter storms also led to some extreme supply-demand tensions and price spikes, first in January in northeast Asia and then February in North America, notably in Texas. Rising prices have challenged the position of gas in electricity generation as seen in the United States where demand in the first quarter of 2021 was lower than the first quarter of 2020. Across the year, higher gas prices are expected to keep gas demand in the United States close to 2020 levels and around 2% below 2019 levels. In the European Union, higher carbon prices provide some support to gas vis-à-vis coal; preliminary data for the first quarter show an 8% y-o-y increase in gas demand in Europe. The picture is very different across developing Asia, where demand in 2021 is expected to increase by 7% on 2020 levels, putting demand 8.5% above 2019 levels. China leads the increase, with 2021 demand more than 14% (or 44 bcm) higher than 2019 levels.

Natural gas demand growth by region, 2019-2021


Natural gas demand growth by sector, 2019-2021



Renewables bucked the trend in 2020

Renewable energy use increased 3% in 2020 as demand for all other fuels declined. The primary driver was an almost 7% growth in electricity generation from renewable sources. Long-term contracts, priority access to the grid, and continuous installation of new plants underpinned renewables growth despite lower electricity demand, supply chain challenges, and construction delays in many parts of the world. Accordingly, the share of renewables in global electricity generation jumped to 29% in 2020, up from 27% in 2019. Bioenergy use in industry grew 3%, but was largely offset by a decline in biofuels as lower oil demand also reduced the use of blended biofuels.

Renewables are on track to set new records in 2021

Renewable electricity generation in 2021 is set to expand by more than 8% to reach 8 300 TWh, the fastest year-on-year growth since the 1970s. Solar PV and wind are set to contribute two-thirds of renewables growth. China alone should account for almost half of the global increase in renewable electricity in 2021, followed by the United States, the European Union and India. 

Renewable electricity generation increase by technology, country and region, 2020-2021


Renewable electricity generation increase by technology, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021


Wind is set for the largest increase in renewable generation, growing by 275 TWh, or almost 17%, which is significantly greater than 2020 levels. Policy deadlines in China and the United States drove developers to complete a record amount of capacity late in the fourth quarter of 2020, leading to notable increases in generation already from the first two months of 2021. Over the course of 2021, China is expected to generate 600 TWh and the United States 400 TWh, together representing more than half of global wind output.

While China will remain the largest PV market, expansion will continue in the United States with ongoing policy support at the federal and state level. Having experienced a significant decline in new solar PV capacity additions in 2020 as a result of Covid-related delays, India’s PV market is expected to recover rapidly in 2021, while increases in generation in Brazil and Viet Nam are driven by strong policy supports for distributed solar PV applications. Globally, solar PV electricity generation is expected to increase by 145 TWh, almost 18%, to approach 1 000 TWh in 2021.

We expect hydropower generation to increase further in 2021 through a combination of economic recovery and new capacity additions from large projects in China. Energy from waste electricity projects in Asia will drive growth of bioenergy, thanks to incentives.

Increases in electricity generation from all renewable sources should push the share of renewables in the electricity generation mix to an all-time high of 30% in 2021. Combined with nuclear, low-carbon sources of generation well and truly exceed output from the world’s coal plants in 2021.

Share of low-carbon sources and coal in world electricity generation, 1971-2021


In 2021, the biofuels market is likely to recover and approach 2019 production levels as transportation activity slowly resumes and biofuel blending rates increase. Biofuels are consumed mostly in road transportation, blended with gasoline and diesel fuels, and thus are less affected by continued depressed activity in the aviation sector. 


Electricity demand in 2020

Global electricity demand fell by around 1% in 2020, with demand declining most markedly in the first half of the year as lockdowns restricted commercial and industrial activity. Demand was, at times, 20-30% lower than pre-lockdown periods. Compared to the same periods in 2019, after stripping out weather variations, China’s demand dropped by more than 10% in February. The United States, after China the second-largest global electricity consumer, experienced a decline of almost the same magnitude in May during the peak of stay-at-home orders.

From March to April, weekly demand in Germany, France and the United Kingdom dropped more than 15% and, in Spain and Italy, by even more than 25%. Similarly, India saw demand decline more than 20% in several weeks between mid-March and the end of April. In Japan and Korea – where COVID-19 cases were fewer than in Europe and the United States– demand declined by around 8% in May.

Advanced economies recovered in the second half of 2020 but remained for the most part below 2019 levels. Some emerging markets and developing regions registered strong growth rates towards the end of the year, especially China and India, who recorded more than 8% and 6% year-on-year growth, respectively, in the last quarter of 2020.

Electricity demand in 2021

Electricity demand is expected to increase by 4.5% in 2021, supported by rebounding economic activity and rapid growth in major emerging economies such as China.

In advanced economies, vaccination campaigns against Covid‑19 are expected to enable the progressive lifting of restrictions between spring and autumn. The anticipated demand growth of 2.5% should be sufficient to push demand within 1% of 2019 levels. In the United States, demand is expected to increase by around 2%, boosted by economic stimulus and colder temperatures during the early months of 2021. This increase should push demand to within 1.6% of 2019 levels. The largest consumers in the European Union  – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – are anticipated to remain below 2019 levels, with an increase of almost 3% in 2021 failing to fully make up for declines of 4% to 6% in 2020. It is similar in Japan, where demand is expected to rebound only 1% from 2020 levels, far from sufficient to reverse the 4% decline in 2020.

Demand in emerging and developing economies remains on the growth trajectory that resumed in the second half of 2020. This trajectory will be accelerated by the projected strong economic recovery for China and India.
With a projected 2021 GDP growth of 9% in China and 12% in India, electricity demand is expected to grow by around 8% in both countries compared with 2020. For China, the projected increase comes on top of 2020 growth, putting demand in 2021 almost 12% above 2019 levels. Southeast Asian countries are also expected to see a strong return to growth, with demand increasing 5% in 2021, putting total demand 3% above 2019 levels.

Electricity demand in 2021

Change in electricity demand in 2020 and 2021 by region


Electricity supply in 2020

Record growth of renewables – led by wind and solar PV, which in 2020 grew by 12% and 23%, respectively, combined with a decline in global electricity demand – put fossil fuel-fired and nuclear power plants in a tight spot in 2020. Demand from non-renewable sources decreased by more than 3%.

Coal was the hardest hit among all sources of electricity in 2020, down 440 TWh. The 4.4% drop in generation from coal was the largest ever absolute decline and the largest relative decline in the past fifty years. Driven by low gas prices, the United States alone accounted for almost half of the global net decline. The European Union was responsible for an additional 23% of the decline – a decline largely offset by increases in generation from renewable sources.

Gas-fired power plants experienced lesser declines in generation compared to coal, down only 1.6% in 2020. Gas was less affected owing to competitive prices, especially during the middle of the year. In the United States, where gas-fired generation increased by 2% in 2020, coal-fired generation dropped by a staggering 20%, or 210 TWh.

Oil continued its uninterrupted global decline since 2012, decreasing by 4.4%.

Electricity supply in 2021

Recent developments promise the 20th consecutive year of growth for renewables-based electricity generation in 2021. Expanding generation from renewables is expected to provide just over half of the increase in electricity supply in 2021. With generation from nuclear expected to increase by around 2%, the remaining electricity demand growth is met by coal and gas-fired power plants. 

Change in electricity generation in 2020 and 2021


The majority of the increase in electricity generation from fossil fuels is likely to be provided by coal-fired power plants, with their output expected to increase by 480 TWh. Due to upward pressure on gas prices, natural gas benefits to only a small extent (+1%). In the United States, where coal-fired generation dropped by around 20% in 2020, we expect about half of this loss to be reversed in 2021 – as coal-to-gas switching is unwound in some parts of the country. As a result, gas-fired generation falls by almost 80 TWh in 2021 in the United States.

Well over half of the increase in coal-fired electricity generation in 2021 is anticipated in China. Although representing about 45% of additional global renewable generation, around half of the 8% increase in electricity supply in China is provided by fossil fuels in 2021, pushing generation from coal in China up by 330 TWh (or 7%) on 2019 levels. In India, which is expected to have the second-largest absolute demand growth after China, 70% of additional electricity demand in 2021 will be covered by thermal generation – almost all from coal.

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