Global power sector emissions rise to pre-pandemic levels, finds review
Rising global electricity demand in the first half of 2021 outpaced growth in clean electricity leading to an increase in emissions-intensive coal power. This further resulted in a spike in global power sector emissions beyond pre-pandemic levels.
However, every cloud has a silver lining: Wind and solar are driving the growth in the clean electricity sector. For the first time wind and solar-generated over a 10th of global electricity, and also for the first time overtook nuclear generation.
The mid-year update published on Wednesday by energy think-tank Ember analysed electricity data from 63 countries, representing 87% of global electricity demand. It compared the first six months of 2021 to the same period in 2019 to show how the electricity transition has changed as the world rebounds from the impact of the coronavirus disease pandemic that struck in early 2020.
The report revealed that global power sector emissions rebounded in the first half of 2021, increasing from the dip seen in the corresponding period in 2020, recording a 5% rise in emissions from the pre-pandemic levels seen in the first six months of 2019.
Global electricity demand also rose by 5% in the first half of 2021 as compared to pre-pandemic levels, which was mostly met by wind and solar power (57%) but also an increase in coal power (43%). Gas was almost unchanged, while hydro and nuclear saw a slight fall. For the first time, wind and solar energy generated over a 10th of global electricity and overtook nuclear generation.
The upwards trajectory of wind and solar is a rapid one: More than doubling from 5% of the world’s electricity as recently as 2015. It is the first time that wind turbines and solar panels have generated more than all the world’s nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy’s share of global electricity has remained largely unchanged in the same period, as fewer new plants are being built outside China, and older nuclear plants are closed in OECD countries.
Even as many countries have pledged to build back better and propel their economies into a new green normal, the analysis shows that no country has yet achieved a true ‘green recovery’ in an absolute sense for their power sector, with structural change in both higher electricity demand and lower carbon dioxide-intensive power sector emissions. Although Norway and Russia appear in the ‘green recovery’ quadrant, this is due to temporary factors — mostly better rains giving higher hydro generation — rather than a significant structural improvement in the electricity sector.
Several countries including the United States, European Union, Japan and Korea achieved lower power sector CO2 emissions compared to pre-pandemic levels, with wind and solar replacing coal, but only in the context of suppressed electricity demand growth.
“Catapulting emissions in 2021 should send alarm bells across the world,” said Ember’s global lead Dave Jones. “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.”
Countries with rising electricity demand also saw higher emissions, as coal generation increased as well as wind and solar. These ‘grey recovery’ countries are mostly in Asia, including China, Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and Vietnam. These countries have yet to decouple emissions and electricity demand growth.
The fastest electricity demand growth was in Mongolia, China and Bangladesh, which all saw coal meet a large amount of this rise. Bangladesh was the only country with no increase in clean electricity. Vietnam was the only ‘grey recovery’ country where solar and wind met all of the increase in electricity demand, but power sector CO2 emissions still rose 4% because of a switch from gas to coal generation.
In India, the continued impact of the pandemic in the first half of 2021 kept electricity demand muted and coal rises to a minimal. Electricity demand between January and June 2021 was only 3% higher than the corresponding period in 2019 — one of the lowest increases in Asia as pandemic restrictions continued. Almost three-quarters (72%) of India's increase in demand was met by growth in solar (47%) and wind (9%). However, coal generation increased by 4%, to fill the remaining gap in demand and also to fill reduced hydroelectricity generation, almost returning to its 2018 peak.
“Developing countries in Asia must focus its attention on meeting all demand growth with new zero-carbon electricity as a first initial step of the region’s journey towards 100% clean electricity before mid-century,” Ember’s senior analyst Dr Muyi Yang said.
The expert further said that Asian countries can leapfrog fossils and move straight to cheaper and cleaner renewable energy solutions. “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,” Yang said.
However, the road to clean energy is long and winding. The International Energy Agency’s net-zero 2050 roadmap shows that advanced countries must get to 100% clean electricity by 2035, while the rest of them by 2040.
The EU and the US are slowly rising to this challenge, as the EU’s Fit for 55 package assures a fast step-up in clean electricity. US President Joe Biden pledged 100% clean electricity by 2035.
Developing economies like India and China have a harder task ahead, as their electricity demand is rising faster, but the proportion of clean electricity is lower.
Against all odds, transition to clean is happening, but at a slower pace. Wind and solar energy are breaking the barrier of a tenth of the world’s electricity generation.