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For First Time, IEA Quantifies Coal’s Dominant Role in Global Temperature Increase

6th April 2019

Coal combustion was responsible for more than 0.3 degrees C of the 1-degree C surge in global average annual surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels—and that makes coal the single largest source of the global temperature increase, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says in a new report.

The finding, outlined in the IEA’s Global Energy & CO2 Status Report released March 26, stems from the Paris-based agency’s first attempt to quantify the impact of fossil fuel use on global temperature increases. It is significant because to date, while data suggests the coal power sector emits a substantial amount of global emissions, no specific value has been attached to coal’s role in global temperature increases that are causing climate change.

The report concludes that the global average annual concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere averaged 407.4 parts per million (ppm) in 2018, up 2.4 ppm since 2017. That is nearly double compared to levels estimated for the era before the industrial revolution in the 19th century, when they ranged between 180 and 280 ppm.

The surge in 2018 is concerning because CO2 emissions stagnated between 2014 and 2016, even as the global economy continued to expand. “This decoupling was primarily the result of strong energy efficiency improvements and low-carbon technology deployment, leading to a decline in coal demand,” the IEA said.

In 2018, Energy Dynamics Shifted—and Carbon Emissions Surged

But the dynamics changed in 2017 and 2018. Higher economic growth was not met by higher energy productivity, and lower-carbon options did not scale fast enough to meet the rise in demand, the IEA said.

“In fact, coal-fired power plants were the single largest contributor to the growth in [CO2] emissions observed in 2018, with an increase of 2.9%, or 280 [million tonnes (Mt)] Mt, compared with 2017 levels, exceeding 10 [gigatonnes (Gt)] for the first time.” The majority of those plants are in Asia, where average plants are only 12 years old—decades younger than their average economic lifetime of around 40 years, it said.

The IEA noted, however, that in 2018, fuel switching between coal and gas accelerated in 2018, driven by economics and policies, which helped reduced the carbon intensity of global energy use. “Without this coal-to-gas switch, the increase in emissions would have been more than 15% greater. This switch, most significant in China and the United States, reduced emissions by 45 Mt and 40 Mt, respectively,” it said.

CCS Still Appears Elusive Without Policy Support

In 2018, meanwhile, efforts to develop large-scale carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) also kicked up, and by the end of the year, the number of projects operating, under construction, or under “serious” consideration increased to 43. China, for example, began operating a new facility to capture CO2 from natural gas processing for use in enhanced recovery, and in Europe, five new projects are under development. The new facilities could capture up to 13 Mt of CO2 annually—which is a 15% increase in potential CO2 capture across the global project pipeline, but only 3% of the global annual average concentration of atmospheric CO2 in 2018.

In an April 2-released report, the Global CCS Institute, an international think tank that promotes acceleration of CCS deployment, noted that only 18 large-scale CCS facilities are in operation today, while five are under construction—but only two, Boundary Dam and Petra Nova, capture carbon emissions from power generation. However, the report laments that no country has yet put in place a comprehensive framework to support the scaling up of CCS that is consistent with meeting climate targets agreed to in Paris.

The Global CCS Institute’s report finds that currently there is an “insufficient value on carbon,” though it is an essential part of any policy framework to support climate change mitigation. The U.S.—the only country that plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement—is the only nation to put any significant value on carbon dioxide storage (up to $50 per tonne by 2026). Norway is the only country that has implemented a carbon tax sufficient to support a business gas for geological storage of CO2 produced during gas production.

For now, 80% of global emissions are still not covered by carbon pricing and half of current emissions covered by carbon pricing initiatives are priced at less than $10/tonne of CO2, it said.

Significantly, that report also says that CCS is “often erroneously referred to as being too expensive compared to climate change mitigation technologies.” Decarbonization without CCS will be more challenging and more costly, and the cost differs per application, Guloren Turan, general manager of the institute’s advocacy arm, explained to POWER. “In addition, we should take a whole-systems approach to evaluating cost, as the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) fails to incorporate energy, flexibility, and capacity of resources. Whole system costs modeling shows that abatement without CCS is much higher, if it is even possible,” she said.

Other Significant Findings from the IEA 

The IEA’s report makes several other significant findings for 2018. As cited in the report:

·        Global energy consumption in 2018 increased at nearly twice the average rate of growth since 2010, driven by a robust global economy and higher heating and cooling needs in some parts of the world.

·        Natural gas consumption grew by an estimated 4.6%, its largest increase since 2010 when gas demand bounced back from the global financial crisis. This second consecutive year of strong growth, following a 3% rise in 2017, was driven by growing energy demand and substitution from coal. The switch from coal to gas accounted for over one-fifth of the rise in gas demand. The U.S. led the growth followed by China.

·        Coal demand grew for a second year, but its role in the global mix continued to decline. Last year’s 0.7% increase was significantly slower than the 4.5% annual growth rate seen in the 2000-2010 period. But while the share of coal in primary energy demand and in electricity generation slowly continues to decrease, it still remains the largest source of electricity and the second-largest source of primary energy.

·        Renewables increased by 4%, accounting for almost one-quarter of global energy demand growth. The power sector led the gains, with renewables-based electricity generation increasing at its fastest pace this decade. Solar PV, hydropower, and wind each accounted for about a third of the growth, with bioenergy accounting for most of the rest. Renewables covered almost 45% of the world’s electricity generation growth, now account for almost 25% of global power output.

·        Electricity demand rose by 4%, nearly twice as fast as overall energy demand, and at its fastest pace since 2010.

·        Energy efficiency across the global economy continued to improve, with global primary energy intensity falling by 1.3%.

This piece was written by Sonal Patel and first appeared in POWER.


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