Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Power Sector Emissions Jumped to Record as World Turned to Coal

Sasol's Secunda coal-to-liquids plant in Mpumalanga. Despite South Africa’s battles with energy security, a powerful coal-mining lobby and a sympathetic energy minister have proved to be stumbling blocks to the rapid roll-out of wind and solar energy. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg)

Global carbon emissions from the power sector jumped to a record last year as the recovery from the pandemic boosted electricity demand and utilities burned more coal amid a gas crunch, think tank Ember said.

Emissions from generating power rose 7% from a year earlier, the biggest gain since 2010 and 3% above pre-Covid levels, according to analysis from the London-based climate think tank. The trend could continue this year as countries turn to coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel — amid high gas prices.

It’s a worrying sign for the world’s ability to meet commitments to cut emissions quickly enough this decade to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The power sector has cheap renewable sources that should be able to partly replace fossil fuels. Yet the war in Ukraine is forcing Europe to tap all energy resources to diversify from Russian energy, and nations like India are also looking to tap more of their own coal to guard against high global prices.

“We still haven’t reached that step where the increase in electricity demand is being met with clean electricity,” said Dave Jones, a global electricity analyst at Ember. “Therefore, fossil generation is increasing. And that has been predominantly coal.”

Carbon Rising

Ember’s analysis for 2021 includes data from 75 countries that make up about 93% of the world’s electricity generation.

Solar and wind power generation grew a combined 17% in 2021, which also marked the first time that those sources accounted for at least 10% of global power generation. The total amount of electricity demand is growing too, and fossil fuels, particularly coal, saw a major rebound last year after dropping during the pandemic.

Coal-fired power generation last year rose more than 4% compared with 2019. Renewable energy sources will need to increase at least 20% a year for global climate goals to remain on track, Jones said.

Much of the increase in coal power and emissions came from Asia, the data show. In Europe, the growth of new renewable capacity started to displace expensive gas plants, rather than coal ones, undermining the region’s plans to ditch the polluting fuel.


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