Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, born from the combustion of fossil fuels, tell a story of global concern. In 2021, these emissions experienced an alarming increase in every major economy, compared to the previous year, painting a worrisome picture of our planet’s environmental trajectory. As Figure 1 illustrates, countries like Brazil, India, Russia, and China, all significant players on the world stage, not only saw emissions rebound but also surpass pre-pandemic levels in 2021. For China, which was the sole major economy where CO2 emissions increased in 2020, 2021 witnessed another surge, estimated at a staggering 5.5%.
However, the most significant spike in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels among major emitters was observed in Brazil, where emissions surged by an astonishing 12% in 2021—a stark contrast to the 6% decline witnessed in 2020. While both the US and the EU-27 experienced an uptick in emissions in 2021, registering at 6.5% and 6.3%, respectively, they did not entirely return to pre-pandemic levels.
Understanding the Surge
This resurgence in emissions during 2021, with the exception of China, can be largely attributed to a significant escalation in the carbon intensity of their economies. This surge was driven by a more rapid increase in fossil fuel demand compared to the overall economic growth. For instance, in Brazil, the demand for fossil fuels (and the consequent CO2 emissions) surged nearly three times faster than the GDP growth in 2021, as illustrated in Figure 2. Similarly, Russia’s CO2 emissions experienced an 8.8% increase—almost twice the pace of the broader economic expansion (4.8%). In India, where CO2 emissions from fossil fuels surged by 11.8% in 2021, there was an economic rebound of 8.9%. Interestingly, both the US and the EU witnessed emissions growing roughly one percentage point higher than their economic growth rates. Conversely, China, despite witnessing a 5.5% increase in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, saw its economy grow by 8.1%. This anomaly was largely driven by a strategic shift in consumption from coal to natural gas, which is a less carbon-intensive fossil fuel.
As the world grapples with the critical issue of decoupling GDP growth from emissions, these findings underscore the complex relationship between economic prosperity and environmental responsibility. While some countries have managed to temper their emissions despite economic growth, others are struggling to strike this delicate balance.
As we navigate the turbulent waters of sustainability, these insights serve as a stark reminder of the pressing need for concerted global efforts to decouple GDP growth from emissions and to drive innovation in greener, more sustainable economic practices. The path forward demands a harmonious fusion of economic development and environmental stewardship—a challenge that must be embraced collectively if we are to secure a more sustainable and resilient future for all.