‘A new era’: Global power sector emissions likely to have peaked in 2022, report reveals

That is according to a major new report from Ember. The climate think-tank’s Global Electricity Review, published on Wednesday (12 April), concludes that “a new era of falling power sector emissions is close”.

The report states that renewables and nuclear accounted for 39% of global electricity generation in 2022 – a record high. While nuclear output fell slightly due to plant maintenance, plant closures and fewer plants coming online, there was major year-on-year growth for renewables.

Solar generation was 24% higher in 2022 than 2021, Ember estimates, while wind saw a 17% year-on-year increase.

Ember has stated that wind and solar “will need to maintain high growth rates this decade” if the power sector is to align with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C pathway. There will also need to be more growth from all other clean energy sources, with the think-tank expressing concerns about faltering nuclear and hydropower rollout.

Ember’s senior electricity analyst Malgorzata Wiatros-Wotkya said: “We are entering the clean power era. The stage is set for wind and solar to achieve a meteoric rise to the top…  However, it all depends on the actions taken now by governments, businesses and citizens to put the world on a pathway to clean power by 2040.

The report’s conclusion is that power sector emissions are likely to have peaked – but how rapidly they will decline in the coming years is to be seen. This will depend not only on scaling clean generation but on scaling back fossil fuels.

Ember tracked a 1.1% year-on-year increase in global coal generation in 2022. This is attributed partly to continued growth in markets such as China, but primarily to some nations planning temporary coal-fired electricity increases as they cut back on oil and gas imports from Russia. Ember has described the increase as “limited” and believes it will be temporary. Increased generation was largely due to the extension of operations at existing coal plants rather than the opening of new plants.

Gas power generation saw a small, year-on-year decline of 0.2%. Ember’s conclusion is that a gas power phasedown is “now within reach” but not yet guaranteed, as developing and emerging economies may turn to gas as a “bridging” fuel.

Coal generation needs to decline a further 54% by 2030 and gas by 24%, by 2030, if the 1.5C trajectory is to be aligned with. By 2040, unabated goal generation will need to end completely, while unabated gas will need to decline to less than half a percent of the global electricity mix. Ember reaches these conclusions by drawing on previous research from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Beyond generation

Crucially, the report also looks beyond generation and to broader interventions. It highlights the importance of “urgent work” to ensure that electricity grids are ready for more renewables to come online, with streamlined development processes plus adequate energy storage and flexibility built in.

Additionally covered in the report is the need for more of a focus on energy efficiency to avoid “runaway growth in electricity demand”. Ember tracked a 2.5% year-on-year increase in electricity demand in 2022, similar to the average growth of the previous decade.

While demand was down slightly in the EU (3%) as the bloc positioned energy saving as a key part of its response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, demand was up 54% in China, 21% in the US and 18% in India.

The IEA tracked a 2% decrease in global energy intensity for 2022. But its net-zero by 2050 scenario entails an average decrease of 4% each year in the 2020s.

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