IEA: Global renewable energy up, but we're not cutting emissions

  • 18 Apr 2013, 15:43
  • Robin Webster

The world isn't cleaning up its energy systems despite increasing investment in renewable power, according to a new report. So how has this happened? The answer in one word: coal. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA)'s report, released yesterday, measures carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide released for each unit of energy consumed around the world. It 

finds that since 1990 carbon intensity has remained "essentially static" - meaning the world is currently heading for six degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Different scenarios 

The agency has created three different scenarios for the future development of the world's energy systems - from "6DS", where temperatures go up by six degrees down to "2DS", where the rise is limited to two degrees.

The 6DS scenario, says the IEA, is "largely an extension of current trends". Under the 4DS and 2DS scenario, expansion of renewables and energy efficiency measures mean that the energy system becomes less carbon intense, limiting greenhouse gas emissions to four degrees and two degrees respectively:

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Renewable power on track...   

Investment in renewables has doubled in the last decade, reaching a record high in 2011. The IEA says renewable power is on track to generate 25 per cent of the world's electricity by 2020. This is consistent with its 2DS scenario, or a global temperature rise of two degrees: 

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...But we're burning lots of coal   

Another trend is counteracting the growth of renewable power. In the first decade of this century, the amount of energy being generated from nuclear or renewables grew by an impressive-sounding 25 per cent. But in the same time period, coal-fired generation grew by 45 per cent. 

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 At 15.29.25 

China and India both consumed more coal than ever before. China's coal consumption alone represented nearly half (46.2 per cent) of global demand in 2011. Meanwhile the boom in US home-grown gas meant it exported more of its coal to Europe. 

As a result, global emissions went up. Global coal demand is set to increase by another 2.6 per cent every year - a prediction the IEA says "is fundamentally inconsistent with a low-carbon future". 


Reducing emissions from coal 

Modern ' supercritical' coal power stations are much more efficient than older, 'subcritical' units - reducing emissions by around 25 per cent. But three quarters of the world's coal power stations are subcritical, and only half of the new ones being built are of the more modern, efficient variety: 

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Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) doesn't show too many signs of saving the day either. The IEA envisages that, if the world is going to reduce emissions in line with the 2DS scenario, one fifth of emissions cuts need to come from CCS by 2050. But the agency says there is a lack of "coherent inventive policies" around the world that would get CCS going. 


Coal to gas won't save the day either 

The IEA says that the USA's shale gas boom has driven a "coal to gas switch", driving down emissions. 

But it's not that clear whether this could happen elsewhere. Gas powered generation has risen rapidly over the last two decades - but so has coal generation. In Europe, a low carbon price and cheap coal is driving the trajectory in the opposite direction.

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Overall, the IEA concludes "we cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness" and perhaps unsurprisingly, emissions aren't going to go down without the policies to make it happen. 

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