Biggest shift from coal in 30 years sees carbon dioxide emissions plunge

Rob Waugh
Contributor
Drax Power Station Selby North Yorkshire (Getty)

Electricity producers shifted dramatically away from using coal in 2019 in the biggest shift since at least 1990, figures suggest. 

Electricity generation from coal fell 3% in 2019, which led to a 2% fall in carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, according to climate think-tank Ember.

But the think-tank warned that the reduction may still not be enough to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Read more: Britain’s electricity use since 2010

Ember also warned that it was too early to think of falling coal use as “the new normal”.

The fall in coal is partly due to a structural shift towards wind and solar but also relied on one-off factors, such as nuclear generation being restarted in Japan.

It would need to collapse at a rate of 11% a year up to 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5C, the report from Ember warned.

Read more: Warm US winter sees coal-fired plants in deep freeze

In the EU, coal generation fell by 24% and the bloc is leapfrogging from coal straight to wind and solar power, according to Ember, which has previously published annual analysis of electricity transition in the EU.

Wind and solar generation rose by 15% in 2019, generating 8% of the world’s electricity.

This level of growth needs to continue for many years to tackle the climate crisis, which is possible with falling prices but will require a concerted effort from all regions, the report said.

The analysis also reveals the growth in demand for electricity slowed to 1.4%, the slowest increase since the 2009 recession, due to low economic growth and a milder winter in the US and EU.

Dave Jones, Ember’s electricity analyst and lead author of the report, said: “The global decline of coal and power sector emissions is good news for the climate but governments have to dramatically accelerate the electricity transition so that global coal generation collapses throughout the 2020s.

Read more: New UK deep coal mine ‘unnecessary’, says green group

“To switch from coal into gas is just swapping one fossil fuel for another.

“The cheapest and quickest way to end coal generation is through a rapid roll-out of wind and solar.”

But he said that without concerted efforts to boost wind and solar, the world would fail to meet climate targets.

The US coal collapse – down 16% in 2019 – is undermined in terms of its climate impact by the fact the power sector has mostly switched to gas.