Boom in wind, solar blunts global rise in energy emissions

Source: By Benjamin Storrow, E&E News • Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2022

Wind turbines spin on Aug. 23 near the Mettiki Coal processing plant in Oakland, Md.

Wind turbines spin on Aug. 23 near the Mettiki Coal processing plant in Oakland, Md. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For months, there was a fear among energy observers that 2022 would turn into a carbon bomb for the planet.

Then, renewables galloped to the rescue.

Global carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy use are on track to increase 1 percent this year, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday. That’s significantly less than what many observers projected earlier this year — when a global surge in natural gas prices prompted worries that many countries would turn to coal as an alternative.

Coal consumption has increased, but the emissions impact has been largely offset by record setting growth in renewables, IEA said. The agency found that the growth in renewables alone likely avoided 600 million tons in additional CO2 emissions, or slightly less than the 646 million tons of CO2 produced by Germany last year.

In a statement, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the emissions projections are less “than some people feared” and a sign that decarbonization policies are driving structural change. Plus, “those changes are set to accelerate thanks to the major clean energy policy plans that have advanced around the world in recent months,” he added.

Global emissions growth had been steadily declining before the onset of Covid-19. Since then, the world has been on something of a roller coaster ride, with a record-setting drop in emissions in 2020 followed by a rebound of nearly 5 percent in 2021.

Many observers projected that trend would continue as the economy continued to rebound at the beginning of 2022, sending demand for energy higher. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a domino effect in global energy markets.

Europe splurged on liquified natural gas to replace Russian gas imports, which sent LNG prices soaring; higher LNG prices led some Asian countries to turn to coal, which pushed up demand for the carbon intensive fuel amid flagging investment in new mines. Coal prices, as a result, have hit record highs in recent months.

The world’s energy crunch has been exacerbated by droughts in China and Europe, which limited hydro production in those regions; and maintenance problems with France’s nuclear fleet.

Two factors have helped the world avoid higher emissions growth this year. Covid-19 lockdowns in China have hampered economic growth, sending demand for coal and oil lower. China is the world’s leading CO2 polluter, accounting for 11.1 billion tons of the 36.4 billion tons emitted in 2021, according to the Global Carbon Project.

Renewables, led by wind and solar, have also been growing gangbusters. IEA reckons that renewables will grow by 700 terawatt hours this year. To put that number in perspective: total Canadian power generation was 641 TWh in 2021, according to BP PLC.

Global emissions are likely to plateau in the coming years, with decarbonization trends running at the same pace as economic growth, said Zeke Hausfather, a climate researcher at the payment processing firm Stripe. The rate of decarbonization is likely to eventually outpace economic growth, as technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps become even more cost competitive, he said.

“Just peaking global emissions is the first and easiest step on the road to solving climate change,” he said. But, he added, “We need to get emissions all the way down to zero, which is much harder.”