Debate: were 2019 carbon successes a one-off or a sign of things to come?

JP Casey and Chris Lo 19 May 2020 (Last Updated May 18th, 2020 16:49)

2019 could turn out to be a watershed moment for emissions reduction, with global coal-fired electricity generation falling by 3% compared to 2018, and carbon dioxide emissions by 2%, the most dramatic decreases falls since 1990. However, environmental thinktank Ember, in its ‘Global Electricity Review 2020’ report, ‘Global Electricity Review 2020’, concludes that many of these changes were the result of one-off environmental and economic factors, cooling excitement that the world could see meaningful environmental change in the long-term. JP Casey and Chris Lo investigate the findings.

Debate: were 2019 carbon successes a one-off or a sign of things to come?
2019 saw global coal-fired electricity generation fall by 3% compared to 2018, and carbon dioxide emissions by 2%. Credit: Tony Webster

JP Casey: 2019 proved clean energy does not come at a cost

No-one doubts that cutting carbon is a long-term positive for the planet; some of the world’s biggest polluters have admitted as such, with Rio Tinto announcing a $1bn plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The key difficulty, however, has been in demonstrating that a renewable-driven energy mix is not merely a lofty ideal, but a practical future for the world’s power supply, and in this regard, 2019 was a year of great encouragement.

In its Global Electricity Review 2020, Ember noted that the European Union was among the world leaders in this regard, noting that coal generation among member states fell by 24% between 2018 and 2019, triggering a 13% fall in power sector emissions. Critically, this decline was not influenced by a significant drop in the bloc’s power demands, but the rise of alternative energy sources, namely wind and solar power, picking up the slack. New wind generation increased by 14% year-on-year, while new solar increased by 7%, demonstrating that a cleaner energy mix can be possible without compromising the ability to meet energy demands.

This precedent is particularly important in India, which saw year-on-year coal generation fall by 3%, the first decline in a decade. India leads a number of countries, considered “developing economies”, who have not been historically responsible for the majority of the world’s air pollution, yet feel under pressure to improve their environmental record. With solar growth of 27%, wind growth of 5%, and monsoon rains driving a record 14% growth in hydropower generation, India’s 2019 demonstrates that meeting a rapidly growing energy need is possible without undergoing the rapid fossil fuel-based industrialisation that hit Europe and North America in the 19th Century.

Around the world, energy demand fell, which could be the beginning of a critical trend that will see fossil fuel emissions reduced. While some of these short-term changes are the result of one-off environmental factors, such as a mild winter in the US that saw electricity demand actually fall year-on-year by 1.4%, the decade-long trend is in an encouraging direction. Global electricity demand rose by just 1.4%, the slowest increase since 2009, and close to half of the rate of growth in 2018. Ember noted that global electricity demand growth will have to slow to about half the rate of the noughties in order to reach the Paris climate goals, and with this falling rate of growth, seen in China, the US, the EU, and India, some of the world’s biggest polluters, there is cause for optimism.

There is also a financial element to the clean energy transition, with many companies in historically polluting industries realising that they can only remain profitable in the long-term if they shift to more renewable power sources. Shell and BP have both announced plans to go carbon-neutral by 2050, and while both pledges deserve scrutiny, the alignment of financial aims and environmental demand could see both achieved in the long-term.

Chris Lo: encouraging signs, but the carbon mountain is still unclimbed

In a transition as long and gruelling as the decarbonisation of the global energy system, there’s value in patting ourselves on the back once in a while. In a sea of stark warnings over the unfolding impacts of climate change, highlighting steps in the right direction shows how carbon-reducing investments can pay off, as well as providing role models that laggards in the energy sector can follow.

Ember’s recent report on energy generation in 2019 provides several pinpricks of light amid the gloom. A 3% worldwide decline in coal generation and a 2% fall in total power sector emissions, coupled with 15% growth in solar and wind capacity, make for top-line results that are worth celebrating.

But there’s precious little time for victory laps; a closer look at the data reveals just how many miles are left to travel on the energy sector’s decarbonisation journey. The 3% decline in global coal generation last year was driven by dramatic collapses in the European Union and the US, but unlike in the EU, the majority of the displaced coal generation in the US has been replaced by gas plants.

China, meanwhile, now generates more than half of the world’s coal-fired power and increased coal generating capacity by 2% last year, adding 43.8GW of coal capacity while closing just 7GW. With China’s unexpectedly large energy demand growth of 4.7% last year, meeting the needs of the country’s population without a significant contribution from coal will be an immense challenge in the coming years. Interestingly, the report notes that per-capita energy demand is now higher in China than in the UK, although it’s still less than half the per-capita demand in the energy-hungry US.

Of the world’s top ten coal power-generating countries, only one has introduced a firm date for phasing out coal (in the form of Germany’s 2038 commitment), let alone a phase-out plan that is consistent with the IPCC’s target of limiting climate change to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels. In fact, Ember’s report points out that hitting the 1.5° target will require annual declines of at least 11% in coal generation up to 2030, or 4% up to 2025 under the International Energy Agency’s less ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario. While the 3% coal decline achieved in 2019 might be the biggest drop since at least 1990, the 11% annual goal underscores the broad transition that has still yet to take place, even in a record-breaking year.

2019 was also a year in which several one-off factors gave a rosier sheen to the data. These factors include lower-than-usual economic growth and mild winters in many countries, which contributed to the lowest growth in worldwide energy demand since the global recession in 2009. Wet conditions in India and China drove the growth of new hydroelectric projects, while nuclear generation increased by a century-high margin of 4%, primarily because of nuclear plant restarts in Japan and South Korea.

The construction of new nuclear infrastructure is notoriously capital-intensive and time-consuming; the lack of public support for nuclear in many countries will make this kind of growth almost impossible to sustain in the future, despite the technology’s recognition as a key source of low-carbon baseload generation to displace fossil fuels.

The growth of wind and solar energy, plummeting renewable energy prices, and the slow death of coal in many countries are all encouraging signs. But while the EU is setting the global standard in sustainable decarbonisation and renewable capacity growth, the continued growth of coal in China (alongside countries such as Indonesia, which increased coal generation by 11% last year) threatens to negate these environmental gains. In 2020, the light might now be visible at the end of the tunnel, but there remains little indication that the world has the wherewithal to actually get there in time to prevent disaster.