By Will Howell
It has been announced that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated from electricity production fell by 2% worldwide in 2019, which follows from a 3% drop in coal-powered electricity generation. Both of these falls are the biggest since 1990, providing hope in the fight against climate change.
However, the think-tank Ember, who published the 2020 Global Electricity Review that reported the findings, stress falling coal emissions “is not yet the new normal”. The fall is in part due to structural changes, such as a shift towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, which in 2019 rose by 15% and now accounts for 8% of worldwide electricity. Compound growth of renewables of 15% a year is required for the Paris climate agreement, an international treaty designed to foster global cooperation in the fight against climate change. It is hoped that further drops in prices of renewable energy will help to encourage this target to be met.
However, the drop in CO2 also relied on ‘many other one-off factors’, such as the EU’s decision to switch from coal to renewable energy, leading to a 24% drop in coal generation but cannot be replicated. This suggests that the sharper decline in CO2 emissions seen last year may not be part of a larger pattern, but rather an anomaly.
Furthermore, this is nowhere near a level of drop in emissions required to avoid the worst of climate change. Global coal generation is needed to drop at a rate of 11% a year to avoid global temperatures rising over 1.5 degrees, the amount recommended by scientists to minimise the effects of climate change. While there was an overall decrease in coal usage and emissions, many countries saw a rise. For example, China’s coal generation rose in 2019, and it now accounts for 50.2% of worldwide coal use. Additionally, Indonesia (+11%), Malaysia (5%), the Philippines (12%), and Vietnam (34%) all increased their coal consumption. Even the U.S.A, who saw a drop of 16% of coal usage, largely offset this by increasing gas consumption.
The lead author of the report, Dave Jones, 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.”
Jones, who works as Ember’s electricity analyst, added “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.”
While this is promising news and a much-needed step in the right direction, much more drastic action is needed if we are to avoid the worst of global temperature rises and the accompanying catastrophic damage to our world.