Fastest Decline of Carbon Emissions in 30 Years as Electricity Sector Moves Away from Coal

Carbon emissions generated by the global electricity sector fell by 2% in 2019, the biggest drop since at least 1990 when the International Agency began reported figures, as countries turned their backs on coal-fired power plants. According to a worldwide assessment by climate think tank Ember, coal-fuelled electricity declined 3% in 2019 which led to a 2% fall in the power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Despite this encouraging sign that attitudes to coal are changing we are still at risk of not reaching the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Unless there is an accelerated shift towards cleaner energy sources it is likely that the targets will be missed by a huge margin. The rate at which the energy sector is changing is still too slow making it extremely difficult to meet the global target to limit climate change to 1.5C

The major new report from think tank Ember Climate, formerly known as Sandbag, the team behind the EU Power Sector Review, carries a stark warning. It advised that a shift away from fossil fuels was not yet “the new normal” and warned governments must “dramatically accelerate” the transition to sustainable energy sources if the world is to have any chance of avoiding the worst impact of climate change.

This drop in carbon emissions happened even as China increases its reliance on coal plants for another year to make up half the world’s coal generation for the first time. At the same time, the US and the EU are continuing to turn to cleaner energy sources.

The big worldwide decline in coal-fired power generation last year was due in part to the switch to renewables in Europe and more competitive gas pricing in the US. Coal generated 24 per cent less electricity in Europe and 16 per cent less in the US in 2019 taking coal generation to around half the level seen in 2007 in both regions.

According to Ember, the nuclear plant restarts in Japan and South Korea have also contributed to the slower demand for coal.

Dave Jones, Ember’s electricity analyst and lead author of the report, said:

“The global decline of coal and power sector emissions is good news for the climate, but governments have to dramatically accelerate the electricity transition so that global coal generation collapses throughout the 2020s.”

The report warned that the dent in the world’s coal-fired electricity generation relied on many one-off factors, including milder winters across many countries.

Ember said:

“Progress is being made on reducing coal generation, but with nothing like the urgency needed to meet global climate goals, especially in Asia.”

The report showed a difference in international approaches to the energy transition. In the EU coal power is predominantly being swapped for wind and solar with some support from gas power, leading to emissions falling by 43 per cent since 2007. In comparison, in the US though renewables have grown gas is more prominent in the transition away from coal, limiting the resulting fall in emissions to between 19 per cent and 32 per cent.  

Basically coal-fired power generation needs to plummet by 11 per cent a year for the next decade if global warming is to be limited to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the limit scientists warn is needed to avoid the worse impacts of the climate crisis.

The report warned the US coal collapse was “undermined” by a move towards gas, which rose 4 per cent worldwide.

Mr. Jones said:

“To switch from coal into gas is just swapping one fossil fuel for another.  The cheapest and quickest way to end coal generation is through a rapid roll-out of wind and solar. But without concerted policymaker efforts to boost wind and solar, we will fail to meet climate targets. China’s growth in coal, and to some extent gas, is alarming but the answers are all there.”

In 2019 wind and solar generation increased by 15% worldwide generating 8% of the world’s electricity.

Ember’s report stated that renewables needed to grow at the same rate every year in order to meet the Paris climate agreement. It said that though lower prices “provide hope” that the rate can be sustained, continued growth “will require a concerted effort from all regions”.

Mr. Jones went on to say:

“Without concerted policy-maker efforts to boost wind and solar, we will fail to meet climate targets. The EU leaps out with 18 per cent of electricity now coming from wind and solar, but with the US on 11 per cent, China at nine per cent and India at eight per cent – the race is on.”

On a positive note, there are signs that real progress is being made. In the third quarter of last year electricity generated by renewables in the UK overtook fossil fuels for the first time, according to analysis by Carbon Brief.

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