Analysts: ‘One-off’ factors fuel largest global power emission drop in decades

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Image credit: Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr

The world relied on “one-off” factors last year to reduce power sector emissions faster than it has for decades and may struggle to sustain this decline in coming years, analysts have said.

A new report by think tank Ember found stronger solar and wind generation helped fuel drops in global coal generation (3%) and power-related CO2 emissions (2%) between 2018 and 2019, marking year-on-year decreases not seen since “at least” 1990.

The analysis, out this week, examined data covering 85% of global power production and concluded that additions last year of solar and wind generation (270TWh) more than compensated for the drop in output (259TWh) seen with coal electricity.

According to Ember, the new 270TWh in green power generation represented a 15% worldwide jump year on year. Across key regions globally, China scored the highest growth rates of solar and wind output (16%), followed by India and the EU (13% each) and the US (11%).

Solar spearheaded the overall momentum around green power, Ember’s data suggested. According to the think tank – previously known as Sandbag – solar power output grew by 22%, the highest rate of any power source. It was followed by wind (12%) and natural gas and nuclear (4% each).

The global power-related CO2 savings were not achieved by green power alone, as the Ember report noted. They were also helped by the fact that circumstantial factors – mild winter weather, economic slowdown – meant power demand grew less than it had in a decade.

From one-off fortune to long-term climate reprieve

Broader weather and economic dynamics will not, Ember warned, deliver alone power emission cuts able to keep climate change in check. A “lack of urgency” among coal nations makes the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global heating to 1.5°C “extremely difficult”, the think tank said.

Its new analysis pointed at the sizeable coal-fired fleets the world’s top burners continue to operate. Even if generation from the fossil fuel dipped 3% worldwide last year, it rose 2% to 4,560TWh in China and remains high in India (999TWh), the US (966TWh), Japan (285TWh) and others.

As noted by Ember, another obstacle is the fact that even those abandoning coal are sometimes embracing other fossil fuels. Where solar and wind have fully replaced shuttered coal capacity in the EU, they have only taken over a 35% share in the US, with gas picking up the remaining 65%.

According to Ember, maintaining green power growth at the level required by climate change will be “very challenging”. Replicating 2019's PV and wind generation jump of 15% – in itself the lowest increase since 2000 – will demand a “concerted effort” by all regions, the think tank said.

Ember’s talk of lower electricity CO2 emissions last year add to the IEA’s own, similar findings of a drop in the CO2 output from the broader energy sector. In figures released last month, the agency talked of “grounds for optimism” as it linked the lower CO2 numbers to the growth of PV and wind.

For its part, fellow global agency IRENA said last year green energy will require annual funding of US$750 billion by 2030 – up from US$330 billion today – if it is to remain a driver of decarbonisation. From Spain to Australia, key solar markets face a particular need to invest in grid expansions.

See here to read Ember's 'Global Electricity Review' in full and here to access the complete, downloadable country-by-country emission data sets

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