Data explained: E.U. economy greenhouse gas emissions for 2021 are below pre-pandemic levels, but not Q4

Greenhouse gas emissions from the European Union economy in 2021 are below pre-pandemic levels. But the last quarter actually shows an increase in emissions to 2019. Will it be only a short term inflation due to the economic rebound in the end of the year?

Greenhouse gas emissions European Union
© Marcin Jozwiak, Poznań, Poland

In the fourth quarter of 2021, European Union economy greenhouse gas emissions totaled 1,041 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2e), according to Eurostat latest estimated data published on May 16. This accounts for 8% more than in Q4 2020, or 78 Mt CO2e more emitted by the E.U.

This increase is largely due to the economic rebound during the end of last year explains the statistical office of the E.U., which led to an increase in the carbon footprint in the region.

All quarterly emissions of 2021 were above 2020. But only the last quarter surpassed levels of 2019's greenhouse gas emissions and pre-pandemic levels.

And 2021 carbon footprint was actually lower than 2019 or any previous year, up until at least 2010. "Despite the effect of the economic rebound between the same quarters of 2020 and 2021, the long-term trend of E.U. greenhouse gas emissions displays a steady reduction," Eurostat explains.

For the entire year of 2021, the E.U. emitted 3,781 Mt CO2e. It's 278 million tonnes more than 2020; 61.5 million tonnes less than 2019 (in 2020, the E.U. footprint decreased by 340 Mt CO2e compared to 2019). So, carbon footprint in 2021 increased 8% compared to 2020 but decreased 2% to 2019.

But the economic rebound still slowed down the reduction of carbon emissions. Compared with pre-pandemic levels, emissions in 2021 decreased 59% slower than in 2019-2018 and 16% slower than in 2018-2017.

If all of the emissions saved during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been totally offset by the economic rebound in 2021, it doesn't mean 2022 will not see another increase in emissions.

E.U. economy greenhouse gas emissions by quarter and economic activity
E.U. economy greenhouse gas emissions by quarter and economic activity. Q4 2021 totaled 1,041 Mt CO2e, slightly above the pre-pandemic value for Q4 2019. Economic sectors responsible for most emissions of greenhouse gases were households (22%), manufacturing and electricity, gas and hot water supply sectors (both 21%) in Q4 2021. | © Eurostat

GHG emission reductions in 2021 vs. 2019 mainly due to only two economic sectors

In fact, looking at data by categories shows that the emission reductions in 2021 compared to 2019 is mostly the result of two activities: Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply (-37.5 Mt CO2e), and Transportation and storage (-57 Mt CO2e).

All the other activities, except agriculture (-4 Mt CO2e), increased their emissions in 2021 compared to 2019. This is notably true in manufacturing, +25 Mt CO2e, by far the economic activity with the largest growth, followed by household activities (+2.6 Mt CO2e).

While all activities had a lower emission footprint in 2020, including households despite stay-at-home orders, they then almost all cancelled the gains in 2021 (if the pandemic has certainly dramatically modified societal behaviors, data shows shares of emissions across activities actually remain pretty stable overall).

And if the carbon footprint from transportation and electric power, natural gas, hot water network supply sectors in 2022 stop decreasing or decrease more slowly, the E.U. carbon footprint may go back to growing again like in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

And that's exactly these sectors that experience two of the three largest emission increases during Q4 and the economic rebound, with +18% for transportation for Q4 2021 vs 2020, and +10% for electricity, natural gas and hot water supply. What's even more worrying is that, regardless supply chain and shipping tensions observed in 2021, transportation emissions were constantly growing in the five years before the pandemic.

The E.U. pledged to reduce its GHG emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. To attain this objective it needs to emit no more than 2,543 Mt CO2e a year, still 33% less than the carbon footprint of 2021.

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