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Energy transition

Coal about-face sees biggest emissions drop since 1990

Wind and solar generation rose by 15% in 2019, generating 8% of the world’s electricity.
Wind and solar generation rose by 15% in 2019, generating 8% of the world’s electricity. AFP PHOTO / Ezequiel BECERRA

Emissions from the world’s power sector last year fell to their lowest level in three decades amid a steep drop in the use of coal, a study published Monday has found.

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The European Union and Unites States were the main drivers in shaving 2 percent off carbon emissions produced by the global generation of electricity.

An analysis of the sector by the independent climate think tank Ember found that coal production in the US and Europe has halved since 2007. In 2019, it collapsed by 24 percent in the EU and 16 percent in the US.

The emissions plunge is directly linked to a 3 percent drop in coal-fired power generation – which itself resulted from four main factors, explains Dave Jones, an electricity analyst with Ember and the report's lead author.

“It came from the lowest electricity demand increase since the 2009 recession; it came because of some coal-to-gas switching in the US and the EU; it came from good hydro and nuclear availability throughout the world. But the most interesting driver was the step up in wind and solar generation of 15 percent last year,” he says.

The coal collapse in the US has, however, been undermined by a switch to gas, a less-polluting fossil fuel, while the EU has made strides in its clean transition to wind and solar energy.

For the first time, China was responsible for half of global coal generation, as Beijing’s reliance on coal plants continued to climb. Since the Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015, China has seen a 17 percent spike in coal generation – despite falls in the rest of the world.

Data on the global electricity sector, while promising, shows that a more concentrated international effort will be required if warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees – the target beyond which scientists say the effects of climate change will be catastrophic.

“They say we've got to reduce coal generation by more than three-quarters globally in the next 10 years,” says Jones. “That's such a huge challenge it needs a whole international focus and urgency in a way that we’re just not seeing at the moment.”

Interview: Dave Jones, electricity analyst, Ember thinktank

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