Comment: The best news in a mixed report on world’s coal use

Carbon emissions from coal were up globally, but Europe — amid an energy crisis — found ways to avoid it.

By Lara Williams / Bloomberg Opinion

In an era where bad news on the climate comes thick and fast, the latest International Energy Agency report on global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at least came with a few pinches of positivity.

First, the negative bit. Total global CO2 emissions from energy and industrial processes grew by 0.9 percent to 36.8 gigatons in 2022. That is a smaller increase than was originally feared, but it’s a minuscule win: It still takes us up to an all-time high.

Several drivers contributed to the rise, including extreme weather, offline nuclear reactors and geopolitical events. The largest emissions increase came from electricity and heat generation. As the war in Ukraine disrupted natural gas supplies, nations including India and Indonesia switched to the cheaper alternative: coal. Global emissions from coal-fired power generation rose by 2.1 percent, or 224 million tons of CO2. Across all sectors, the fuel was responsible for releasing a record 15.5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and the 1.6 percent rise far exceeded the last decade’s average annual growth rate.

Now for the first pinch of positive news. The deployment of wind and solar and other clean technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles prevented about 550 million tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Without the growth in renewables, the rise in CO2 emissions would have been about 2.3 percent.

There’s something heartening about being able to put a figure on the positive effects of the tech we’ve been pinning our hopes on, and we are finally due to start bending the curve on fossil-fuel emissions in 2025, according to energy sector research firm Rystad Energy. But now’s not the time to start applauding. For starters, we need to consider land use as a source of emissions, as my colleague David Fickling has written. And, to keep the 1.5C Paris agreement target in sight, we will need to see a 45 percent reduction in global emissions from 2010 levels by 2030. With just seven years to go, we are now up almost 13 percent on 2010 levels. In the grand scheme of things, a few hundred million tons of avoided emissions is tiny.

While the wide use of coal is quite depressing, there’s a second pinch of positivity. The European Union was at the epicenter of the energy crisis induced by Russia’s war in Ukraine. It also had a severe drought, which limited hydroelectricity generation; and with many reactors offline for maintenance, France’s nuclear-power output dropped to a 30-year low. Yet, against all those odds, the E.U. saw a 2.5 percent drop in CO2 emissions. The mild winter notwithstanding, a large part of this shift is down to clean tech deployment and behavioral change from citizens who cut their electricity usage.

Of course, what we’re seeing here is the split between nations that can afford to decarbonize, and nations that can’t. Emerging economies in Asia haven’t been able to invest in renewables and, once gas became out of reach, faced a choice: Burn coal, or go dark. Europe meanwhile, had the means to both stockpile gas and deploy wind and solar at scale.

The E.U.’s successful emissions reduction shows that it’s possible to mitigate a crisis in a clean, green, sustainable way. The challenge will now be keeping the momentum accelerating behind those behavioral changes and renewables deployment. But it’s also a reminder that it’ll be worth nothing if we don’t get less wealthy nations more climate funding and investment, too.

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.

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