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IEA Global Energy Report 2018: a number of bad news…

The latest edition of the International Energy Agency Global Energy & CO2 Status Report shows some bad news about how the international energy system has been evolving over 2018. From the increasing emissions to sluggish energy efficiency, we are still very far from seeing the changes (or revolution) that the IPCC scientists are calling for.

IEA Global Energy Report 2018: a number of bad news…

The March 2019 edition of the International Energy Agency – IEA Global Energy Report for 2018 brings about a number of bad news. As already expected when the end of 2018 was approaching, in 2018 “the global energy-related CO2 emissions rose 1.7% to a historic high of 33.1 Gt CO2”.

This was due to a worldwide increase in energy consumption of 2.3% in 2018 compared to 2017 levels, driven by a robust economic growth and the extreme weather conditions which led to higher heating and cooling needs in many parts of the world.

The IEA Global Energy Report 2018 shows that if in 2015 and 2016 the global energy-related CO2 emission stagnated, after those two relatively good years we seem to be on track on the old route. The rate of deployment of renewables and the progressive substitution of coal with natural gas, at least for electricity generation, is not enough to cope with the world’s energy hunger.  And the IPCC scientists’ special report of October 2018 clearly and urgently called for much more than this.

In the following we briefly reports some tricky aspects about the 2018 trends.

Who’s lagging behind?

In the United States, after the 2017 reduction, energy CO2 emissions increased of 3.1% in 2018, where the extreme weather conditions accounted for something like 60% of the total increase. Although the country emissions are still well below their peak in 2000, the expected increase in probability and intensity of this events due to climate changecould lead to a sort of self-feeding spiral, where the need to cope with climate change effects will cause and more climate change itself.

Europe did better, since emissions fell by 1.3%, and also in Japan emissions decreased.  In Europe the progressive drop in coal consumption and the increase in renewables generation are rapidly changing the electricity mix. In Japan the decline in emissions is due to energy efficiency improvements and the coming back online of four nuclear power plants for the first time since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Meanwhile… in China CO2 emissions grew by 2.5%, while in India by 4.8%.

The first point here is that “developed” countries should go at a much faster pace for decarbonising their energy sectors. The second is that it’s hard and silly to ask developing and fast growing economies, and usually still in the process to provide access to modern and reliable energy to a large share of their population, to severely curb their emissions. Third, we all live on the same planet, and we all have to share responsibility for what we are doing today, since today we all know the human responsibility in climate change and the expected consequences.

Fourth and last… all countries are lagging behind, but, most of all, the developed economies.

Electrification: a friend or a foe?

Electrification is one of the big energy trends of the energy transition. Electricity can help decarbonising other sectors, like, in particular, transport and heating/cooling, provided that it is pursued with carbon free sources.

According to the IEA Global Energy Report 2018, last year “renewables grew at double-digit pace, but still not fast enough to meet the increase in demand for electricity around the world”, so that, also generation from coal- and gas-fired power plants rose, driving up CO2 emissions from the sector by 2.5%, reaching 38% of total energy-related CO2 emissions. And, after all, coal still remains the largest source of electricity (see the table below).

Furthermore, nuclear phase-out plans seem quite difficult to sustain at these stage, and at least until fossil fuels will be almost completely out of the game, as the restarting of some reactors in Japan clearly shows.

Is then electrification a false friend of energy transition toward decarbonisation? Not at all.

As Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo taught us: “There’s a powerful, obedient, swift, and effortless force that can be bent to any use and which reigns supreme aboard my vessel. It does everything. It lights me, it warms me, it’s the soul of my mechanical equipment. This force is electricity.”

We need electricity for everything, and we’ll need it more and more, as it is suitable for every kind of work, can be generated using a multitude of primary sources and technologies, and providing access to electricity to all is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

But, notwithstanding the progressive coal to gas switching and the massive deployment of renewables, we are still unable to sustainably catch up with the increase in the electricity demand.

Dull efficiency improvements

Finally… something always important to keep in mind: a negawatt is the cheapest and more sustainable energy. A real decoupling between the emissions and economic growth is still far from reality in most places in the world. But, as the IEA Global Energy Report tells us, globally in 2018 “CO2 emissions increased by nearly 0.5% for every 1% gain in global economic output compared with an increase of 0.3% on average since 2010”.

Although the primary energy intensity of most regions/countries decreased, 2018 was the third consecutive year in which the worldwide improvement rate for energy efficiency slowed. This is mainly due to the still huge and untapped potential for energy efficiency gains, with current mandatory polices only covering around one-third of final energy use, and too weak efforts to strengthen existing regulations.

It results that there is a goldmine of economic and emissions savings out there that is “just” waiting for the political and social will to invest and change things.

All in all a number of bad news come from the IEA Global Energy Report 2018. Of course there also are some positive aspects and changes, but the pace of the change remains too slow, although there is a huge potential to do better for all.