A Surge In Renewable Energy?
By Paul Homewood
A rather breathless headline from the failing Guardian, but the truth is rather more mundane, as the IEA explain:
Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) – the largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – stayed flat for the second year in a row, according to analysis of preliminary data for 2015 released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”
Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015, having remained essentially flat since 2013. The IEA preliminary data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015; wind alone produced more than half of new electricity generation. In parallel, the global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.
In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year. Three of those – the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 – were associated with global economic weakness. But the recent stall in emissions comes amid economic expansion: according to the International Monetary Fund, global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2015.
The two largest emitters, China and the United States, both registered a decline in energy-related CO2 in 2015. In China, emissions declined by 1.5%, as coal use dropped for the second year in a row. The economic restructuring towards less energy-intensive industries and the government’s efforts to decarbonise electricity generation pushed coal use down. In 2015, coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than four years ago (in 2011). Over the same period low-carbon sources jumped from 19% to 28%, with hydro and wind accounting for most of the increase. In the United States, emissions declined by 2%, as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.
The decline observed in the two major emitters was offset by increasing emissions in most other Asian developing economies and the Middle East, and also a moderate increase in Europe.
More details on the data and analysis will be included in a World Energy Outlook special report on energy and air quality that will be released at the end of June. The report will go beyond CO2 emissions and will provide a first in-depth analysis of the role the energy sector plays in air pollution, a crucial policy issue that today results in 7 million premature deaths a year. The report will provide the outlook for emissions and their impact on health, and provide policy makers with strategies to mitigate energy-related air pollution in the short and long term.
It really is much too early to come to any conclusions – these are provisional figures, and no detailed data on energy, renewables or anything else has been provided by the IEA, other than the CO2 figures.
But the first thing that has to be said is that the global growth figure quoted of 3.1% is in fact low by recent standards. It is therefore misleading to suggest that growth and emissions have become decoupled.
Since the turn of the century, global growth rates of 5% were common until the recession hit. Since the economic recovery in 2010 however, the norm seems to have subsided to more like 3%. My view is that the days of 5% growth are long gone.
As I say, it is too early to look at detail, but talk of a surge in renewables is wide of the mark. We had a similar situation a year ago, and the BP Energy Review stats for 2014 put matters into proper perspective.
As the IEA point out, global emissions of CO2 barely increased in 2014 either, rising by just 0.5%. As the graph below shows, there was certainly no surge in renewables. Primary energy consumption rose by 0.9%.
Renewables, including hydro, accounted for less than half of this rise. It is arguable that without these CO2 emissions would have risen by 0.9%, rather than 0.5%. The difference is hardly earth shattering.
It is unlikely that situation in 2015 will be much different.
There should be little surprise about these numbers.With a slowing global economy, gradual shift away from coal to gas and the maturing of the Chinese economy to a less energy intensive one, the slow down in CO2 was inevitable.
The real issue is that current emissions are still way above 1990 levels, which we were told at the time were already far too high. Just look again at the IEA graph:
Since 1990, emissions of CO2 have risen from 20.62 to 32.14 Gt. A few windmills won’t make much of a dent in that.