Building back badly: global power sector emissions rise beyond pre-Covid levels

More coal was burned for electricity this year than before the pandemic, pushing emissions from power production to a new high. Developing Asia accounts for most of the increase, but no single nation has lived up to green recovery promises.

Power sector emissions 2021
A coal-fired power station. No single country has made the structural changes needed for a truly green recovery from last year's economic slowdown. Image: pxhere

Global power sector emissions soared beyond pre-pandemic levels in the first half of 2021 as rising demand for coal-fired electricity outpaced growth in clean energy production, reveals a report published today by London-based energy think tank Ember.

The mid-year review of the world’s electricity markets analysed data from 63 countries representing 87 per cent of global power demand and compared it against 2019 trends to shed light on where the energy transition stands as countries recover from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation have not only rebounded from the lows seen during the Covid-19 crisis but jumped 5 per cent above 2019 levels, an increase driven by a 5 per cent rise in global power demand.

While solar and wind powered 57 per cent of this growth, coal supported the other 43 per cent. Electricity production from gas remained largely unchanged, while hydro and nuclear power supply sat slightly below 2019 levels amid persistent droughts and plant closures.

This rise in emissions wasn’t inevitable. We could have learned from the pandemic, and we could have embraced the Paris Agreement a lot more than we did.

Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies, Australasia, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

When governments introduced lockdown measures in early 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus, electricity demand fell 3 per cent below 2019 levels, and carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 7 per cent.

But by the second half of 2020, power demand bounced back, pushing global emissions up to pre-pandemic levels. Over the first six months of 2021, carbon dioxide pollution has steadily increased, a trend that is likely to continue according to Ember’s data analysis.

The electricity sector is critical in global efforts to combat climate change. A landmark report released by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) in May found that more than half of the total emissions reductions this decade must come from ending coal power alone.

Meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping average global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius will require net-zero electricity generation by 2040, according to the IEA roadmap. This means coal generation must decline 14 per cent every year, yet it has increased by nearly 6 per cent since 2019.

Green flop

Countries where a substantial rise in electricity consumption fuelled an increase in carbon dioxide emissions are mostly located in Asia and include China, Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Vietnam, Ember’s report indicates.

However, no single country has made the structural changes needed for a truly green recovery from the economic slowdown, despite a myriad of pledges by governments to use economic stimulus packages to spur low-carbon growth and ratchet up energy efficiency measures.

Several nations, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Europe, have seen power sector emissions drop and renewables gain on coal only in the wake of suppressed electricity demand growth, the analysis states.

Catapulting emissions in 2021 should send alarm bells across the world.

Dave Jones, global lead, Ember

“Catapulting emissions in 2021 should send alarm bells across the world,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s global lead. “We are not building back better—we are building back badly.”

“A lightning-fast electricity transition this decade is critical to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. The electricity transition is happening but not with the urgency required: emissions are going in the wrong direction,” he said.

Joyce Lee, policy and projects director at the Global Wind Energy Council, told Eco-Business that the ground gained in reducing emissions during the pandemic would already be lost by the end of 2021 if the world remained on its current trajectory.

“Although renewables had a record year in 2020 — with a record-high 93 gigawatts of wind power capacity installed worldwide — the rise in electricity demand and current high prices for conventional energy sources like natural gas are contributing to increased coal generation,” she said.

Developing Asia struggles

Mongolia, China, and Bangladesh experienced the fastest growth in electricity demand, with coal making up a large share of the increase, the report found.

Bangladesh was also the only country analysed that failed to install more clean energy capacity. Vietnam’s emissions rose 4 per cent because of a switch from gas to coal as volatile natural-gas prices encourage power producers to favour coal-burning plants. This is despite solar and wind supplementing for the increase in power demand.

Developing Asia’s struggle to clean up its power supply can partly be attributed to the developed world’s failure to mobilise US$100 billion in finance each year to help emerging markets mitigate and adapt to climate change, a pledge made under the Paris Agreement, said Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies, Australasia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Asia partly relies on such funding to slash emissions. “Asia isn’t the problem—it’s global finance that’s the problem,” Buckley told Eco-Business. “Global capital needs to flow to the right technologies to solve this problem. Asia can address its rising emissions, but it needs financial support from the developed world to do so.”

“This rise in emissions wasn’t inevitable,” he added. “We could have learned from the pandemic, and we could have embraced the Paris Agreement a lot more than we did.”

Of all countries, China has seen the biggest rise in electricity consumption since 2019, at a staggering 14 per cent. While its growth in clean energy capacity dwarfed the rest of the world, coal power increased by 337 terawatt-hours, more than the European Union’s total coal generation in the first half of 2021.

“Economic recovery has been China’s primary objective,” Buckley said. “That doesn’t mean the country has given up on climate action, but the government’s target to peak emissions before 2030 provides a perverse incentive to drive rapid energy demand growth and fossil fuel development now, only to then shut coal power plants in time to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.”

Developing Asia can leapfrog fossils and move straight to cheap, clean renewables, according to Ember’s senior analyst Muyi Yang. “But this is contingent on whether the region can further accelerate its inexorable march of clean electricity while at the same time use electricity more efficiently.”

“Renewable energy is now cheaper to build than running existing coal or gas plants in countries home to nearly half of the world’s population,” said Lee. As electricity demand keeps rising, the world cannot “leave it to coal plants to fill the gap”, she said.

The rapid replacement of existing coal plants with cleaner alternatives and a ban on new coal investment with accompanying policies that level the playing field for clean energy, are just some of the necessary interventions that policymakers can enforce, according to Lee. 

Ember’s analysis comes on the heels of a report on the state of the global climate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which spells out the devastating impacts of human actions on the climate and the future that lies ahead if emissions keep rising.

The assessment found it was “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”, and that capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold that scientists warn must not be crossed to avert the worst effects of climate change, would be impossible without immediate and aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, with some changes already deemed irreversible.

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