This year has seen some major global developments surrounding the urgent need to tighten regulations everywhere in order to drastically cut air pollution levels. Current measures have not been enough, but 2021 has seen unprecedented progress. The issues of phasing out coal and ending financing for fossil fuels received new levels of attention internationally as both developed and developing countries announced ambitious long-term targets regarding coal and reaching carbon neutrality.
However, after record drops were experienced in 2020, global fossil fuel consumption and air pollution rebounded all the same. Governments have failed to target COVID-19 recovery spending towards emission reduction measures, and despite progress, clean energy investments are still not sufficient enough to push down global emissions in a sustained and speedy way.
One of the most important breakthroughs on the air pollution front was the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new air quality guidelines. The organization finally recognized that air pollution is dangerous at much lower levels than indicated by its 2005 air quality guidelines, which should prompt governments to update their national standards.
The United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in November set out ambitious targets on global commitments to improve energy and air quality. Many emerging economies committed to coal phaseouts for the first time, including Vietnam and Indonesia. Some developed countries and major emitters — the USA, Australia and Japan — acknowledged the need to phase out unabated coal for the first time but should have stronger pledges to keep warming below 1.5 °C. A major challenge of 2022 is to turn the aspirations announced in Glasgow into firm policies and targets for this decade.
This winter is already seeing Europe, China, and many other regions facing a fossil fuel crunch, with sky-high electricity prices hitting consumers. These crises are both a clear sign and an opportunity to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, as they further increase the economic competitiveness of producing clean energy.
Air pollution partially rebounds as the WHO tightens recommended air quality levels
To control pollution, countries develop national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), which set concentration limits on critical pollutants. The standards, as well as their monitoring and enforcement, vary from country to country but should look to the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline values, which reflect the most recent scientific evidence on air pollution exposure and the resulting burden of disease.
An unintended consequence of the measures against COVID-19 has resulted in the fall in consumption of fossil fuels, and improvement in air quality, around the world. Reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations have been significant, as traffic is the main emitter of NO2 in most cities. Some cities saw a decline of more than 60% in their NO2 levels, including China.
As economies are recovering from the pandemic, and production and transport have largely resumed in 2021, one might worry that air quality would bounce back to pre-COVID levels. We have looked at main cities in various regions of the world and compared NO2 levels in 2021 to those in 2019, after controlling for weather conditions, as seen in the chart below.
NO2 levels in 2021 vs 2019
In China, Europe and the United states, most cities if not all have had lower NO2 levels in 2021 compared to 2019, meaning air pollution has not reverted to pre-COVID levels. This contrasts with India and Turkey where several important cities have seen air pollution ‘overshooting’ pre-COVID levels.
The updated WHO standards reflect strengthened standards in general, but most notably for PM2.5 and NO2. However, SO2 standards were weakened. Our analysis of the new guidelines showed that countries would have to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels to meet the new standards. Aligning national standards will be a crucial and guiding step in the coming year; CREA has created its own air quality standards tracker and estimations of potential health impacts under both national and WHO guidelines to emphasize the urgency of such an action.
COP26 pledges could lead to cleaner air
On the energy and clean air front, the COP26 commitments to phase out domestic coal use are among the most notable. Our research found that the pledges presented in the run-up to and at the Glasgow Summit upped the number of coal plants with a phaseout date. This number increased from 380 in 2020 to 750 coal-fired power plants (550 gigawatts). Only 170 plants (89 GW) are not covered by a carbon neutrality or a phaseout date commitment — that is 5% of the operating fleet today. Major coal users are facing significant fossil overcapacity on their grids; CREA is working on quantifying the capacity that should be prioritized for closure.
“No new coal” or fossil fuel financing pledges questions the future of 90 new coal power projects (88 GW), on top of 130 new projects (165 GW) that could be canceled to achieve new zero-carbon targets.
COP26 also took steps to increase financing of climate mitigation and adaptation for developing countries. Some 29 countries committed to end direct international public support for unabated fossil fuels by 2022 and redirect this investment to clean energy. Financial pledges from the Asian Development Bank, Climate Investment Fund, and the Just Energy Transition Partnership will support decarbonization efforts in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa.
According to the UN, this year’s climate pledges put us on track for 2.5°C of warming by the end of the century — down from the 4°C trajectory the world was on before the Paris Agreement. Setbacks included the USA’s clear absence from the coal phaseout pledge and the “phase down” language initiated by China and India.
In addition, several major emitters’ targets are not yet aligned with the Paris Agreement goals, and many still lack credible pathways to achieve deep emission cuts by 2030. The 1.5 °C goal — which could mean the survival of many nations and communities, and saving millions of lives affected by persisting air pollution from fossil fuels — is still within reach. The stage has been laid for the world’s most polluting fossil fuel to finally make its exit. The COP26 outcome document, the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on countries to outline even more ambitious national action plans, moving the original deadline of 2025 to next year’s COP27 in Egypt.
In a year of many developments in the climate and energy space, our analysts give their take on the highlights in their respective regions.