Biggest fall in carbon emissions from energy generation since 1990 © Getty Images

Biggest fall in carbon emissions from energy generation since 1990

Global coal use dropped 3 per cent in 2019, a study has found, but it will need to drop 11 per cent per year to meet global warming targets.

  • Last year, electricity generation from coal fell by 3 per cent, and carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector dropped 2 per cent, a study has found.
  • The EU led the way by reducing coal use by 24 per cent, while China’s use of the fuel grew.
  • To meet the target of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, coal use will need to drop 11 per cent per year until 2030.
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Last year saw the biggest falls in global electricity generation from coal and power sector carbon emissions since at least 1990, analysis suggests.

Electricity generation from coal fell 3 per cent in 2019, which led to a 2 per cent fall in carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, according to the worldwide assessment by climate think tank Ember, previously known as Sandbag.

Though it is the biggest fall on both counts since at least 1990 when the International Energy Agency (IEA) started reporting on them, declining coal generation is not yet “the new normal”, Ember warned.

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Limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists warn is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, looks extremely difficult, Ember said.

While coal power collapsed in the EU and the US, Chinese electricity from the fossil fuel grew last year and the country is responsible for half of global coal generation, the analysis found. The fall in coal is partly due to a structural shift towards wind and solar but also relied on one-off factors, such as nuclear generation being restarted in Japan.

It would need to collapse at a rate of 11 per cent a year up to 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5°C, the report from Ember warned.

The US coal collapse – down 16 per cent in 2019 – is undermined in terms of its climate impact by the fact the power sector has mostly switched to gas. In the EU, coal generation fell by 24 per cent and the bloc is leapfrogging from coal straight to wind and solar power, according to Ember which has previously published annual analysis of electricity transition in the EU.

The global decline of coal and power sector emissions is good news for the climate but governments have to dramatically accelerate the electricity transition
Dave Jones, Ember

Wind and solar generation rose by 15 per cent in 2019, generating 8 per cent of the world’s electricity. This level of growth needs to continue for many years to tackle the climate crisis, which is possible with falling prices but will require a concerted effort from all regions, the report said.

The analysis also reveals the growth in demand for electricity slowed to 1.4 per cent, the slowest increase since the 2009 recession, due to low economic growth and a milder winter in the US and EU.

Dave Jones, Ember’s electricity analyst and lead author of the report, said: “The global decline of coal and power sector emissions is good news for the climate but governments have to dramatically accelerate the electricity transition so that global coal generation collapses throughout the 2020s.

“To switch from coal into gas is just swapping one fossil fuel for another. The cheapest and quickest way to end coal generation is through a rapid roll-out of wind and solar.”

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But he said that without concerted efforts to boost wind and solar, the world would fail to meet climate targets. “China’s growth in coal, and to some extent gas, is alarming but the answers are all there.

“The EU leaps out with 18 per cent of electricity now coming from wind and solar, but with the US on 11 per cent, China at 9 per cent and India at 8 per cent – the race is on,” he said.

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The report incorporates 2019 electricity generation data covering 85 per cent of the world’s electricity generation, including information from China, the US, India and EU, and informed estimates of the remaining 15 per cent.

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All renewable energy sources are strong contenders for the title of ‘greenest energy source’ since they harness carbon-neutral sources of energy such as the Sun or wind and don’t cause air pollution, putting them leagues ahead of coal or gas power.

Picking a clear winner is, however, tricky. Once you consider the emissions associated with their manufacture and installation, hydropower has the lowest carbon footprint, according to one major study.

But there are also many other environmental impacts to bear in mind. For example, building hydropower dams can cause disruption to river ecosystems, while manufacturing solar panels typically involves toxic chemicals.

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