October 7, 2022 Fossil Fuel Growth Is Undercutting Clean Energy’s Progress

Employees work on a freight train loaded with coal at Jiangxi Coal Reserve Center on Aug. 19, 2022 in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province of China. Credit: VCG via Getty Images
Employees work on a freight train loaded with coal at Jiangxi Coal Reserve Center on Aug. 19, 2022 in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province of China. Credit: VCG via Getty Images

Clean energy is seeing a surge of new development all around the world, according to a series of new reports, with electricity produced from carbon-free wind and solar power helping to fill rising global energy demand. But the benefits from the new renewable energy, including its impact on greenhouse gas emissions, are being simultaneously undermined by a rise in new fossil fuel projects coming online.

With the COP27 global climate talks just a month away, and early indicators suggesting the world is still far off track from meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, it’s the latest reminder that fossil fuels maintain a stubborn grip on the world economy and continue to jeopardize the effort to stave off catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

In fact, to even have a chance of meeting the international climate accord’s Herculean task of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, investments in clean energy need to quadruple within the decade, according to a new analysis by BloombergNEF. Fossil fuel investments continue to outpace those in renewable energy, the report said, with about 90 cents going into renewable sources for every dollar spent on fossil fuels.

The result has been a boom in new clean energy infrastructure that, though impressive, is still struggling to flatten the rising trend of global greenhouse gas emissions. If that trend doesn’t change course soon, the cost for governments will only go up, officials from the International Monetary Fund, a leading global financial agency with the United Nations, said in another report published this week.

“The world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter before the end of this decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” the officials wrote. “Progress needed toward such a major shift will inevitably impose short-term economic costs, though these are dwarfed by the innumerable long-term benefits of slowing climate change.”

In the United States, the amount of electricity generated from clean sources has tripled over the last decade. And that record-breaking growth has continued this year, with electricity generated from solar and wind sources surging 22 percent in the first nine months of 2022. But despite that growth, U.S. power sector emissions fell just 1 percent so far this year, largely because of a simultaneous rise in new natural gas generation coming online.

Globally, a similar situation is playing out, but with coal. Despite pledges in recent years by governments and the coal industry itself to phase out the use of coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest form of fossil fuels has seen a resurgence in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, nearly half of all the world’s coal companies are now planning to expand their operations, with China’s power sector leading the way, according to a study published this week that examined the plans of more than 1,000 companies that make up 90 percent of all coal-fired electricity generation. The International Energy Agency also expects global coal consumption to jump nearly 1 percent by the end of the year, before hitting an all-time high in 2023.

“The world’s continued burning of large amounts of coal is heightening climate concerns, as coal is the largest single source of energy-related CO2 emissions,” IEA wrote in its July report, noting that coal consumption also saw a “sharp rise” last year, which “contributed significantly to the largest ever annual increase in global energy-related CO2 emissions in absolute terms, putting them at their highest level in history.”

That sharp rise in carbon dioxide emissions last year—roughly 6 percent—erased the historic drop in emissions the world saw during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s observatory in Hawaii detected a record-high carbon dioxide level of 421 parts per million in the atmosphere. While that was the peak for the year, which always comes at the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the observatory’s ongoing readings show an overall trendline that does not appear to be changing course from its steady upward march.

“The science is irrefutable: humans are altering our climate in ways that our economy and our infrastructure must adapt to,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in an agency press release in response to May’s record-high reading. “The relentless increase of carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa is a stark reminder that we need to take urgent, serious steps to become a more Climate Ready Nation.”

In some cases, the effects of climate change itself—such as worsening drought making it more difficult for hydropower dams to generate electricity—are also curbing the effectiveness of renewable energy. But there is still a silver lining to take away from the current trends: Without the record installation of new clean energy systems, the amount of fossil fuel-generated electricity, along with its subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, would have been even higher.

Even as global energy demand grew by 3 percent during the first half of the year, new installations of renewable energy were more than enough to meet that need, preventing an additional 4 percent increase in fossil fuel generation and roughly 230 metric tons of CO2 that would have been released because of it, another report released this week found.

“We are getting closer to a tipping point, where clean electricity—led by wind and solar—will meet all future electricity demand growth,” Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, a senior electricity analyst at the clean energy think tank Ember, wrote in the report. “The electricity sector should be quickly reducing emissions. The fact that we’re still at or close to record highs shows how much more quickly the electricity transition needs to happen.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. The newsletter will take a break next Tuesday in honor of Indigenous People’s Day on Monday. But I’ll be back in your inbox that Friday.

Today’s Indicator

10.5 percent

That’s the total amount of the world’s electricity that was generated by wind and solar power last year, marking the highest amount ever produced by the technologies, which made up less than 1 percent of global generation in 2012, according to the latest “Power Transition Trends” report.