The world’s power sector experienced its largest drop in CO2 emissions in at least 30 years, during 2019, with a 3 per cent drop in global coal-fired electricity generation leading to a 2 per cent fall in CO2 power sector emissions.
A new report published by climate thinktank Ember, formerly Sandbag, provides one of the year’s earliest assessments of changes to the global electricity sector.
The leading headline from the report was the unlooked-for drop in CO2 global power sector emissions which was bolstered by a mammoth drop in global coal-fired electricity generation.
Both of these falls are the largest seen since at least 1990, according to Ember, but could have been much bigger: Coal generation collapsed in both the European Union and the United States in 2019, but increased in China – which was for the first time responsible for half of global coal generation.
Coal generation fell so dramatically due to a combination of factors. Electricity demand in 2019 increased by the least in a decade due to low economic growth and mild winter months, increasing by only 357TWh in 2019, almost half the 2010-2019 average of 643TWh.
Wind and solar generation helped minimise the role of coal, increasing by 15%, or 270TWh, while coal-to-gas switching in the US increased by 113TWh and in the EU by 73TWh.
Overall, however, the carbon intensity of the global electricity sector is now 15% lower than in 2010.
“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,” said Dave Jones, Electricity Analyst, Ember.
“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 policy-maker 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. The EU leaps out with 18% of electricity now coming from wind and solar, but with the US on 11%, China at 9% and India at 8% – the race is on.”
However, Ember warned that falling coal generation is not yet the “new normal” which, in turn, “means limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees is looking extremely difficult.”
Ember believes that the 2019 decline in coal generation relied not only on a structural shift towards wind and solar, but similarly relied on a number of one-off factors. As such, while progress is being made on cutting coal generation, it is “nothing like the urgency needed to meet global climate goals, especially in Asia.”
Further, the authors of the report explain that “even if the record 3% fall in coal were to happen every year, it still wouldn’t be enough.” According to the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees median scenario, coal generation must fall sharply at 11% per year through to 2030, while the IEA’s less ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario requires year-on-year falls of 4% between 2018 to 2025.
On top of that, the lack of urgency evident in the top 10 coal-generating countries – which account for 87% of the world’s coal generation – means that limiting climate change is even more difficult.
None of the world’s top 10 coal-generating countries have made commitments in line with the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario – let alone the IPCC’s more stringent 1.5 degrees scenario. The only country which has even set a coal phase-out date is Germany, which intends to draw down coal generation to zero by 2038 – which is not consistent with the scenarios seeking to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Ember’s report also found that wind and solar generation rose by 15% in 2019 and generated 8% of the world’s electricity. This is an important milestone for wind and solar, as a compound growth rate of 15% is required every year to meet the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ember hopes that lower prices which are becoming more commonplace for both technologies means that such a growth rate can be sustained, however a concerted effort will be required from all regions if this high growth rate is to be maintained.
Finally, while the United States is admirably reducing its reliance upon coal-fired electricity generation – in the face of policies and rhetoric from the current Trump administration – the collapse in coal is undermined by the fact that the country is largely making up for this by transitioning to natural gas.
Conversely, the European Union is not only phasing out coal use but is transitioning to wind and solar. As such, coal generation collapsed by 24% in the EU and by 16% in the US during 2019, but US CO2 power sector emissions fell by between 19% to 32%, whereas power sector emissions fell by 43% in the EU.