Graph of the Day: Why the world needs low carbon electricity

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What would global electricity generation emissions look like if the world used just one generation technology? The result reveals a stark comparison.

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Shrink That Footprint

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Low carbon electricity is a wonderful thing, and will be a central part of tackling climate change.

In 2010 electricity generation was responsible for about 13 Gt of greenhouse gas emissions, or a little bit more than a quarter of all emissions. The rest came from industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, forestry and waste.

The thing that is exciting about electricity from a climate standpoint is that we actually have technology which can slash its emissions. To help provide some clarity and context as to the relative importance of low carbon electricity this post tests a simple idea.

What would global electricity generation emissions look like if the world used just one generation technology?

In 2010 the world generated 21,400 TWh of electricity which resulted in emissions of 13 Gt CO2e (the beige balloon) given the current fuel mix. Using the central estimates from the IPCC’s excellent meta-study of electricity generation lifecyle assessments we can estimate what these emissions would look like using just one technology.

The results are stark.

Using Coal 21,400 TWh would result in 21 Gt CO2e, for Oil it is 18 Gt and for Natural Gas it is 10 Gt.  In contrast Geothermal and Solar PV are 1Gt, Solar CSP is 0.5, Biopower and Nuclear 0.4, Wind 0.3, Ocean 0.2 and Hydro 0.1 Gt.

The gap between fossil fuels and the rest is a chasm.

These numbers deserve some global context. To have a decent chance of keeping climate change to 2ºC we need to cut global emissions to something like 20 Gt CO2e by 2050, and down towards zero by the end of the century. That is down from 50 Gt in 2010.

If we clicked our fingers tomorrow and switched all the coal, gas and oil electricity generation in the world to low carbon sources, we’d still be at 37 Gt. A long way from a stable climate.

But the 13 Gt we currently emit isn’t where the abatement potential of low carbon electricity ends.

A further 20 Gt of current emissions result from transport, industry and buildings.  Large swathes of which have the potential to be electrified and benefit from low carbon electricity.

The remaining emissions from deforestation, agriculture and waste need their own solutions. And when you consider that energy demand is likely to increase by 50-100% by 2050, we could really do with some negative emission technologies too.

You see, low carbon electricity really is a wonderful thing.

Are you getting any?

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6 Comments
  1. Dr George 6 years ago

    Would dispute that gas is <50% of coal. Doubt this takes into account a) fugitive emissions and impacts of CH4 b) increased EROEI of unconventional sources c) comparison between new v old power stations.

    • Lindsay Wilson 6 years ago

      All the intensities are based on a IPCC meta-study of 2,500 LCAs collected in 2009. The gas estimates have a wider range than most. They do account for methane, but are mostly based on conventional gas. The study is linked to in the post

  2. Sid Abma 6 years ago

    What if these power plants were converted to natural gas, and these converted power plants had no chimneys, but instead all this heat energy was recovered.
    What if all this heat energy was used to heat say 1,000 acres or more of algae growing facilities, keeping all this algae nice and warm.
    What if the Cooled CO2 from the exhaust was then “fed” to this algae. CO2 is like a fertilizer, and CO2 is absorbed and Oxygen is returned into the atmosphere.
    The technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery is used to recover the heat energy from the waste exhaust and during this heat recovery process WATER is being created. This created water will be used to maintain water levels at these algae facilities.
    We have created on “paper” a natural gas power plant that is putting No Emissions or Hot Exhaust into the atmosphere, and we are creating water.

    Solar and Wind can’t do that.

    Then comes the next part. How many full time jobs will be created growing and harvesting all this algae? How many jobs will be created processing all this algae into bio fuels and other products. I hear there is no waste.
    What will all these bio fuels do to help also to reduce vehicle fuel operating costs and emissions normally by the orange Oil balloon. Maybe it will become the size of the natural gas balloon.

    What if the electricity and the coal balloons were popped.
    What would the Emissions balloon look like? A Whole Bunch Smaller!

    It’s a decision. Who is going to make it?

    • wilful 6 years ago

      erm, what happens to the algae? It gets burned and put into the atmosphere, doesn’t it.

      • Sid Abma 6 years ago

        Algae is very versatile. It can be used in the food industry and for pharmaceuticals and for perfumes and much more.
        What do you think would be the best use of this natural product?

  3. Doug Hendren MD 6 years ago

    Agree with Dr. George’s concern. Fugitive emissions of methane (using current methods) create a GHG footprint MANY times larger than the CO2 from methane combustion. This may be potentially solvable, but it has not been solved yet.

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