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Rising electricity demand is keeping coal alive

Renewables aren’t growing fast enough

How China Took an Oil Town and Turned It Into a Green Energy Hub
Wind turbines in front of a coal-fired power plant on the outskirts of the new city area of Yumen, Gansu province, China, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.
Wind turbines in front of a coal-fired power plant on the outskirts of the new city area of Yumen, Gansu province, China, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

As people ventured out from their pandemic cocoons this year, they gobbled up more electricity than they did before COVID-19 shut the world down. But there still isn’t enough clean energy to meet rising demand, so coal is making a comeback. Global electricity demand climbed 5 percent above pre-pandemic levels in the first six months of 2021, according to an analysis published today by London think tank Ember. Electricity grids turned to more coal to meet that demand, and power sector carbon pollution rose 5 percent compared to the first half of 2019.

“Catapulting emissions in 2021 should send alarm bells across the world. We are not building back better, we are building back badly,” Dave Jones, global program lead at Ember, said in a statement today. “The electricity transition is happening but with little urgency: emissions are going in the wrong direction.”

China drove 90 percent of the rise in electricity demand and most of the uptick in coal. While China is already the biggest carbon emitter in the world, that’s been mitigated by the fact that its per capita emissions are less than half that of the US, which is currently the second biggest climate polluter. But China’s per capita electricity demand is also rising rapidly, Ember’s report shows. That highlights how important it will be for the planet for China to get its emissions in check.

None of the 63 countries Ember analyzed, which account for 87 percent of the global electricity production, saw a “green recovery” in the first half of 2021. Ember’s criteria for “green recovery” included lower power sector emissions and higher electricity demand, a sign that more electricity was being generated by clean energy sources like solar and wind. Some countries like the US had slightly cleaner power sectors compared to 2019 as electricity demand stayed relatively flat, but their emissions are expected to rise again with demand.

Renewable energy did have a growth spurt in the early part of 2021. Together, wind and solar generated more than a tenth of the world’s electricity — doubling their share in 2015 and surpassing nuclear power plants for the first time this year. But solar panels and wind turbines were still only able to meet 57 percent of the rise in electricity demand, leaving coal — the dirtiest-burning fossil fuel — to provide the rest.

A clean power sector is one of the most crucial steps to achieving global climate goals. Countries are working together under the framework of the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to about 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, which could significantly limit the damage we’re already beginning to see as a result of climate change.

Planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector need to fall by 57 percent this decade to meet that goal, regardless of a rise in electricity demand, according to a recent analysis by the International Energy Agency. Much of that reduction could come from completely cutting out coal — but the Ember analysis shows that the opposite is happening.

In the future, clean power grids could also translate to clean transportation, housing, and building sectors. All-electric vehicles, homes, and buildings are one way city planners and policymakers have sought to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. But the power sector has a long way to go to provide them all with carbon pollution-free energy.

During the height of the pandemic last year, carbon dioxide emissions fell across the board for electricity, transportation, and other energy-hungry industries. That clearly hasn’t been enough to stave off climate change-fueled disasters like worsening droughts, explosive wildfires, record-smashing heatwaves, and severe storms. Moving forward, CO2 cuts will have to come from intentional changes to how the world does business — not because a pandemic put things on pause.