Aug 25, 2021 - Energy & Environment

So much for a "green transition": Carbon emissions from power sector soar

Data: EMBER; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: EMBER; Chart: Axios Visuals

Global carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector have surged past pre-pandemic levels to reach new highs, a new report examining trends during the first half of 2021 finds.

Why it matters: The report from Ember, a London-based environmental think tank, shows that the energy transition that needs to happen to limit the severity and pace of global warming is not taking place fast enough.

  • Instead of renewables, the economic recovery is being powered largely by carbon-intensive coal in many countries, particularly in Asia, while clean energy is gaining ground elsewhere but not at the rates required to meet the Paris Agreement's temperature targets.

The big picture: Global power sector emissions bounced back strongly from lows seen during the first half of 2020 to reach about 5% higher than the first half of 2019, the report finds.

  • The data indicates that while 57% of the growth in electricity demand compared to 2019 has come from wind and solar power, a large fraction — 43% — has been met by firing up coal power plants, especially in China.
  • Growth in clean energy use in many countries failed to keep pace with the increased emissions coming from coal power plants in countries such as China, Bangladesh, India, Mongolia and Vietnam, the report states.
  • According to the report, not a single country out of the 63 nations analysts examined has achieved a so-called "green recovery" for their power sector, which would entail both higher electricity demand and lower emissions.

Context: When compared to the International Energy Agency's roadmap for bringing global emissions to net zero by 2050, global electricity demand would need to rise by 50% by 2030, while simultaneously cutting power sector emissions by 57%.

  • Most of the emissions cuts prior to 2030 in the IEA's modeling would come from ending coal power, the Ember report notes, bluntly stating: "Coal power is rising when it needs to be rapidly falling."
  • The U.S., Japan and Australia do not meet Ember's definition of a green recovery, with a simultaneous increase in energy demand and decrease in emissions, though temporary factors, such as heavy rains boosting hydropower production, helped put Norway and Russia on their way there for now.
  • Mongolia had the fastest growth in electricity demand of the 64 countries in Ember's analysis, and 77% of its 17% increase in demand being met with increased coal use.
  • China had a similar increase in electricity demand compared to 2019, with a 14% increase. This meant that even a large addition of clean energy couldn't keep pace, with more than two-thirds of the increase in demand met with coal power.

Threat level: By the end of the year, power sector carbon dioxide emissions could be even higher, given that such emissions were 7% higher in June 2021 compared to the same month in 2019, Ember found.

  • The report left out some countries that might add even more to power sector emissions, such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Yes, but: There is some hope for those looking for signs of an increasingly robust renewables sector, and that is that for the first time, wind and solar produced more than a tenth of global electricity, overtaking nuclear power.

The bottom line: While wind and solar are on the way up, the increase simply isn't fast enough to get to net zero emissions by 2050, and have a better chance of meeting the Paris targets.

"We need to go hell for leather on the electricity sector and we're nowhere close at the moment," Dave Jones, Ember's global lead, told Axios in an interview.

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