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Energy-related carbon emissions ‘flatlined’ last year – IEA

Following two years of growth, global carbon dioxide emissions stagnated at 33 Gt in 2019, according to the latest figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA). 

This contradicts the findings of the Global Carbon Project, an international group of climate scientists, which predicted late last year that emissions would rise to 37 Gt (see Energy World January 2020). 

The IEA credits declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies for the slowdown. The expanding role of renewables, fuel switching from coal to natural gas and a higher percentage of nuclear power generation have all contributed to the decarbonisation of power grids in industrialised nations. Emissions from the rest of the world grew by almost 400mn tonnes last year, with almost 80% of the increase coming from countries in Asia where coal-fired power generation continued to rise. 

The US saw the largest emissions decline on a per-country basis, with a drop of 2.9%, or 140mn tonnes. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions from the European Union fell by 5%. Natural gas also produced more electricity than coal for the first time ever last year, while wind energy nearly reached a par with coal-fired electricity. 

Power sector emissions from advanced economies have declined to levels last seen in the late 1980s, when electricity demand was one-third lower than it is today, says the IEA. Coal-fired power generation in these countries also declined by nearly 15% as a result of growth in renewables. However, there are concerns that these gains could be shortlived from a global emissions perspective, as developing countries up their coal capacity. 

According to Global Energy Monitor, China is currently building nearly 100 GW of coal capacity, while India has 37 GW of new coal in the pipeline. 

‘We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth,’ said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. ‘We have the energy technologies to do this, and we have to make use of them all.’ 

The UN’s annual Emissions Gap report, issued late last year, found that global emissions would need to fall by 7.6% each year between now and 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5°C. To reach the 2°C threshold, the upper limit of the Paris Agreement, they would have to fall by 2.7% annually for the next decade. 

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