Are renewables decreasing global fossil fuel use?

Whilst the pace of solar and wind energy construction is accelerating, it is not making significant inroads into the quantity of emissions from fossil-fuel based energy systems. Recently Mark Diesendorf from the University of NSW noted that: “We must confront a hard fact: In the year 2000, fossil fuels supplied 80% of the world’s total primary energy consumption. In 2019, they provided 81%.”

And the reason: “While renewables are making major inroads, the world’s overall primary energy use keeps rising. That means renewables are chasing a retreating target.”

[If the world-wide data assembled by BP is used, the figures are 86% in 2000 and 84% in 2019, according to analysis by Shane White.]

That’s why global carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions are flat-lining, at best. Energy use fell in 2020 due to Covid, but the Global Carbon Project projected that coal and gas grew more in 2021 than they fell in 2020 (see chart).

Global GDP has grown about 3% a year over the last decade (excluding Covid impacts), so if energy efficiency measures plus added renewable capacity are equivalent to around 3% of the existing energy supply each year, then the amount of energy coming from existing sources — mainly fossil fuels — does not decrease. And that is what is happening.

To get to zero emissions as fast as possible, not only does the roll-out of renewables have to accelerate fast (supply-side response) but the demand for energy also needs to decrease sharply. Diesendorf says that “if the world’s energy consumption grows at the pre-COVID rate, technological change alone will not be enough to halve global CO₂ emissions by 2030. We will have to cut energy consumption 50-75% by 2050 while accelerating the renewable build”.

And for high per-capita emission nations, the zero goal needs to be 2030 or before, not 2050, as Dan Calverley and Kevin Anderson have shown, even for the Paris goals which are far from safe: “For developed nations, coal production needs to fall by 50% within five years and be effectively eliminated by 2030.”

Otherwise the coal problem will not go away. Coming back to the Boom and Bust Coal 2022 report, it says that:

The world has more than more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants, for a total capacity of nearly 2,100 gigawatts (GW). An additional 176GW of coal capacity is under construction at more than 189 plants. A further additional 280GW is planned at 296 plants, equivalent to the current operating fleets of the United States and Japan combined.

In 2021, 45GW of capacity was added (in 15 countries), and 26.8GW was retired, causing a net increase in the global coal fleet of 18.2GW.

China’s surge in new coal plants (25.2GW) almost offset all coal plant retirements in the rest of the world (25.6GW), and accounted for 56% of global additions (i.e. 25.2/45 = 0.56). Construction started on 33GW of new coal power plants, almost three times as much as the rest of the world put together, and equivalent to 73% of global additions in 2021.

The amount of electricity generated from coal rose by 9% in 2021 to a record high.
Only 180GW of existing coal capacity in the OECD, or a little more than a third, is scheduled to close by 2030. Less than 10% of non-OECD coal capacity is scheduled to close by 2050.

As Carbon Brief noted, China’s Covid stimulus plans for fossil fuels were three times larger than for low-carbon. And this chart (below) in April 2021 from the New York Times illustrates the problem: outside of China, coal plant retirements are exceeding new coal capacity, but in China it is a very different story: China continues to build more new coal power plants than it retires. In 2020, it added more coal capacity than was retired worldwide.

Jorrit Gosens, from the Australian National University, says that as long as China relies on stimulating its economy through construction and other carbon-intensive energy, renewable energy will never be enough, even if its use surpasses stated targets: “That very big expansion of wind and solar doesn’t ensure a reduction in coal-fired power.
Getting to zero fast is as much about demand-side issues as it is about the supply of energy. Oxfam say that the world’s richest one per cent cause, in toto, double the CO₂ emissions of the poorest 50%.

Ten per cent of the world population is responsible for about half the world’s emissions. Cutting the per capita emissions of that ten per cent to just the EU average per capita emissions level would in itself reduce global energy use by one-third. But that is a conversation that too infrequently sees the light of day.

Such a change would require an unprecedented social mobilisation in nations with developed economies, a conversation about equity and a preparedness to acknowledge that rapid decarbonisation will necessarily be disruptive for those who live in a world of conspicuous and unnecessary consumption.