All across the world, we hear uplifting stories that reflect the fast changes in the energy scene. The developed world is consuming less energy than ten years ago. Carbon prices are at the highest level in a decade. Costa Rica now generates more than 99% of its electricity from renewables. Yet the Paris climate targets seem in jeopardy and most forecasts say not enough is being done. Why?
In truth, nearly nobody is doing enough to cut emissions by the 11-19 gigatonnes thought necessary to restrict the increase in the world’s temperature to 1.5℃ by 2050. While Europe has done so much in the past and has an 18% renewables share of electricity generation, now it is stalling. Donald Trump has taken the US out of Paris and is trying to revive the coal industry, while taxing imported solar panels.
The developing world, which tends to be more heavily reliant on fossil fuels to produce power, will have taken note. This matters, because energy demand from non-OECD countries is currently around 60% of the world total. Consumption is still rising fast, with growing numbers of connected homes a key factor.
Electricity generation by source, 2017
It is difficult to generalise, however. China has invested massively in renewable energy – US$127 billion (£99 billion) in 2017 alone, which is head and shoulders above any other country. The new solar capacity China installed during that year equates to several Hinkley Point nuclear power plants. With heavy government support, China has made excellent progress reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP, and an even better job at reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP.
India is further behind. Where China announced that every household had access to electricity in 2015, India is still going through a major electrification push. It has doubled the proportion of homes connected to over 80% since the turn of the century, though millions of homes still don’t have electricity.
India’s electricity system relies primarily on cheap domestic coal, accounting for about three quarters of consumption. India is therefore heavily relying on coal to fuel its economic growth, and the electrification push is rapidly driving up demand – putting further stress on the power grid, too. China had an even greater dependency on coal a few years ago; now it is more like two thirds for electricity and 60% for energy overall.
India/China growth rates 2011-2017
But if India has more work to do, there are signs it is moving in the right direction. Investment in renewable power did finally top that of fossil fuel generation last year, and the country recently earned praise for its efforts in this area.
In sharp contrast to these countries, Russia has a Soviet legacy of full electrification. Yet power generation from renewables last year, excluding hydro-electricity, was only 0.1% of total output. Russia is instead pushing for more nuclear power, which is unpopular in the West. On the other hand, its coal dependency for electricity is in the low teens; most Russian power comes from gas.
Meanwhile, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have all seen strong increases in power generation and CO₂ emissions over the past decade. Recent data also contains stark warnings for the future: Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines all increased CO₂ emissions above 5% in 2017, mostly through significant increases in coal-fired electricity output.
Many developing countries have resisted pressure from the West to decarbonise in the past, arguing Western industrialisation caused most of the problem in the first place, and it will be even harder to persuade them in the current climate. So it is important to realise it is not purely a straight choice between cheaper fossil fuel power and renewables (or nuclear): additional options often get overlooked.
Coal and gas vs renewables
Coal’s share of global electricity production is the same as 20 years ago. Yet newer plants have at least made generation more efficient. Between 1997 and 2016, fuel savings in power generation were 8% for coal and 16% for natural gas. Coal plants in developing countries are approaching the efficiency levels of the developed world, while gas plants have seen improvements worldwide.
We are also underplaying an opportunity with gas. When you compare new gas and coal plants, the carbon emissions from gas are between 50% and 60% lower per unit of power output. In this respect, the fact that gas-fired electricity output has almost tripled in the last 20 years is to be welcomed. Persuade some countries to switch future plants from coal to gas and you make a big difference to emissions. Methane emissions are a controversial downside, but there is still a case for gas.
Share of global electricity generation by fuel
Yes, replacing fossil generation plants with renewables is a quicker way to decarbonise electricity, but we need to be realistic. This will involve building a phenomenal amount of capacity – and we’re moving too slowly. Global investment in renewables actually fell last year. To turn this around, reducing costs is vitally important, as is carbon pricing – the UK is a prime example of how this can effectively remove coal from the energy mix.
Nonetheless, scores of new fossil-powered plants are in the offing worldwide, and developing nations in particular are just not going to build enough renewables to reach the Paris targets. By 2040, renewables are still forecast to have a smaller share of power generation than oil, gas or coal. Carbon capture and storage is also growing too slowly.
It is important to emphasise that electricity is not the only issue – it only accounts for about 40% of the increase in final consumption up to 2040. Another understated challenge, for example, is the growing use of oil in transport. Yet if there is an electric car revolution, a substantial share of that demand will shift into electricity – and it will only be as clean as its source.
But given the reality of where the world, particularly the developing world, is heading, we should only expect so much of renewables. We must also focus on plant efficiency and encouraging switching from coal to gas-fired power. I am not saying this will make the Paris targets achievable, but it will get us closer than being dogmatic about renewables. We need to recognise where we are and tackle carbon emissions from all possible ends.