The world is likely to use fewer fossil fuels to produce electricity this year in a ‘tipping point’ for planet-friendly energy, says a new report.
It would be the first-ever annual decline in the use of coal, oil and gas to generate electricity, outside of a global recession or pandemic.
As a result, less heating gases would be released during power generation.
The authors attribute the expected change to a renewable energy boom led primarily by China.
Wind and solar now produce 12% of global electricity with enough wind turbines added in 2022 to power nearly all of the UK.
Renewables are set to meet all of the growth in demand this year, says the study by energy analysts Ember.
Electricity generation is the single largest contributor to global warming, responsible for more than a third of energy-related carbon emissions in 2021.
Therefore, phasing out coal, oil and gas in this sector is seen as critical to helping the world avoid dangerous levels of climate change.
This new study looks at data from countries that account for 93% of global electricity demand.
This, the fourth edition of Ember’s Global Electricity Review, indicates that significant progress is being made in reducing the role of fossil fuels in energy generation.
The main developments are the continued rise of solar and wind as economically viable sources of electricity. Worldwide, solar grew 24% last year, enough to meet the annual demands of a country as large as South Africa.
Together with nuclear and hydroelectricity, clean sources produced 39% of global electricity in 2022. The report finds that the electricity produced last year was, in fact, the cleanest ever produced.
But despite this, the carbon emissions of the sector have also continued to increase, as coal consumption has increased.
According to the authors of the report, this is due to the fact that the overall demand for electricity has increased and not all of it has been met by clean sources.
There have also been problems with nuclear and hydroelectricity in 2022, with many French reactors out of commission and European rivers too shallow in many places for hydroelectric generation.
However, the report says that in 2023, the growth of wind and solar will outpace the increase in demand and this will start to reverse the trend on heating gases.
“When you stop adding more fossil fuels to generate your electricity, you start to see a drop in emissions,” said Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, the report’s lead author.
“This is extremely important in the context of increasing electrification, as we have more electric vehicles, more heat pumps, so cleaning up the energy sector will reduce emissions in other sectors as well.”
While the decline in fossil fuel emissions to electricity this year is expected to be small, about 0.3%, the authors believe the decline will continue and accelerate in subsequent years. Key to this is the decline in gas use, which declined slightly last year, even as some countries like Brazil reduced their use by 46% in 2022.
“We have now reached the next inflection point where we start to see a new era of declining emissions from the fossil fuel energy sector. We know that wind and solar are the answer and we just need to move forward with a table of march to build them as quickly as possible,” said Dave Jones, of Ember, one of the report’s authors.
A significant player affecting the overall trend is China. About 50% of global wind energy addition comes from China and about 40% of the world’s new solar comes from the country which is also the world’s largest user of coal-fired energy.
“There’s a chance that at the rate China is building wind and solar and all kinds of clean generation, they’ll hit that peak in coal production before 2025, which would be significant,” Jones said.
Energy experts acknowledge that limiting fossil fuels in power generation could be a “game changer,” but much remains to be done.
‘The first peak of coal power generation was in the UK in 1979,’ said Professor Jessica Jewell of the University of Bergen, who was not involved in the study.
“However, it has taken decades to completely phase out coal-fired power – for example the UK still used some coal in 2022, 43 years after the peak. To meet the clean energy targets we don’t have 40 or even 30 years, we need to fully decarbonise electricity in a much shorter time.”