Wind and solar energy generation doubled from 2015 to 2020 and now make up about one tenth of global electricity generation. But the use of coal, by far the most polluting of all fossil fuels, fell less than 1% during that time in real terms, a new report shows.
Crucially, the world consumed more fossil fuels in 2020 than it did in 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to U.K.-based think tank Ember’s ‘Global Electricity Review 2021,’ released today.
The bottom line: the world isn’t moving away from fossil fuels anywhere near quickly enough.
The Ember review, which is increasingly viewed among the climate research community as a bellwether for the direction of electricity generation worldwide, offers both good and bad news about progress on electricity decarbonization, the international community’s highest priority when it comes to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
From 2019 to 2020, the review shows, the world brought an additional 315 terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable generation online—more electricity than is generated by the whole of the U.K.—while there was a drop of 346 TWh in coal generation. This corresponds to a rise in renewables generation of 15% year-on-year, while coal’s global market share of electricity generation fell 3.9% to 33.8% of the total.
But, Ember found, the change was to a large extent the result of a temporary reduction in electricity demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In the longer term, since 2015, the global demand for electricity has increased by a massive 2,536 TWh, or 11%. The world’s most populous nation, China, saw its electricity demand rise by a massive 1,880 TWh—that’s more than the entire demand of most countries, including India, the world’s second-most populous nation. In absolute terms this meant global coal generation dropped just 0.8%, and there was a rise in the use of other fossil fuels, such as fossil gas.
Dave Jones, the review’s author and Ember’s global lead, said the 2020 findings had one clear message: world leaders need to act faster.
“The urgency is immense,” Jones told Forbes.com. “Even with a global pandemic, coal generation only fell by 4% and gas generation was unchanged.”
Referring to the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rises within 2 degree Celsius this century, Jones said: “Coal generation is 30% of CO2 emissions, and coal needs to collapse this decade or else we’re not going to keep temperatures capped at 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees. And so far it’s clear we’re not on that path.”
A key takeaway from the research, Jones pointed out, is that simply installing renewable energy generation isn’t enough to fight climate change. To do that, nations also needed to stop burning fossil fuels.
“World leaders are obsessing with building green stuff, which is great,” he said. “But they also need to focus on phasing out the brown stuff—not only the coal power plants, but also the gas power plants—that are causing the problems we have today.”
The review indicates that China was the only country to add significant coal power generation over the five-year period—some 77 TWh—adding to concerns that the East Asian giant could find it increasingly hard to decarbonize its power sector in time to achieve its 2060 net zero carbon target.
Indeed, while the UN Secretary-General António Guterres had called on all governments to stop the approval of new coal power plants entirely by 2020, China, in its recently released 14th Five Year Plan, has indicated that it could potentially build an additional 100-200 gigawatts of new coal capacity before 2025.
“Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth,” said Muyi Yang, a senior analyst for Ember. “Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.”
In Europe, Germany and the U.K. stood out as renewable energy pioneers, generating a respective 33% and 28% of their electricity from wind and solar. Ember described the two nations as “a hotbed of innovation” on green energy, “showing how to successfully integrate huge amounts of intermittent wind and solar into the broader electricity system.” Yet across the EU, fossil fuels still account for some 37% of electricity generation.
Among the G20 nations, five still obtained more than 75% of their electricity from fossil fuels in 2020. These were: Saudi Arabia, with 100% of electricity coming from oil; South Africa, with 89% of electricity from fossil fuels and a remarkable 86% from coal; Indonesia (83%); Mexico (75%); and Australia (75%), where voices in the country’s power mining lobby have made the extraordinary claim, without providing evidence, that “coal can reduce global emissions.”
Of the G20 countries, France obtained the smallest fraction—less than 10%—of its energy from fossil fuels, and just 1% from coal, but generated 67% from nuclear power.
Jones said that the speed of renewables growth since 2015 indicated that wind and solar could have the potential to replace fossil fuels—if governments act quickly enough.
“In 2020, they [wind and solar] led to the biggest fall ever in world coal use,” he said. Nevertheless, “coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”
Download the Ember review here.