: A surge in coal and oil emissions was expected with Russia’s war and a COVID recovery — here’s what actually happened

United States

Global carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas will be held to an increase under 1% this year, an outcome that many observers deemed impossible as the globe struggled to get its hands on old and new energy sources after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The prediction for a 2022 increase that is a fraction of the recovery jump logged last year when the economy escaped from the worst of the COVID-19 shutdown comes from the International Energy Agency, a global watchdog of the industry, in a release Wednesday.

IEA says the greatly reduced emissions can be chalked up to stronger expansion of renewables ICLN, -0.65%, such as wind, solar and nuclear, as well as electric vehicles TSLA, -5.17% GM, +0.39%, which still create a carbon footprint in their production but spew far less emissions than their gas-powered equivalents. Right now, about 1 in 10 cars made globally are EVs.

“The global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a scramble by many countries to use other energy sources to replace the natural gas supplies that Russia has withheld from the market. The encouraging news is that solar and wind are filling much of the gap, with the uptick in coal appearing to be relatively small and temporary,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

Birol suggested that the nations that have set major clean energy policy in recent years and months should view the moderation as justification for their efforts, and that the structural changes underway, boosting energy efficiency or adding EV charging, for instance, can likely keep emissions in check.

‘The global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a scramble by many countries to use other energy sources to replace the natural gas supplies that Russia has withheld from the market. The encouraging news is that solar and wind are filling much of the gap.’

— Fatih Birol

The IEA analysis of the latest data from around the world shows that CO2 emissions are on course to increase by close to 300 million metric tons in 2022 to 33.8 billion metric tons — a far smaller rise than their jump of nearly 2 billion metric tons in 2021, which resulted from the rapid global recovery from the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. CO2 emissions are the main driver of global warming that is creating rising and more-acidic oceans, as well as sparking more frequent and intense extreme weather.

In the U.S. alone, since 1970, CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%, with emissions from fossil fuel CL00, +0.01% combustion and industrial processes contributing about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase from 1970 to 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

This year’s increase is driven by power generation WTRG, -2.23% and by the aviation sector JETS, +0.27%, as air travel rebounds from pandemic lows. 


Tipping point

Even though the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has propped up global coal demand in 2022 by making natural gas NG00, -0.48% far more expensive, the relatively small increase in coal emissions has been considerably outweighed by the expansion of renewables. Further, global energy trends have been affected this year by the impacts of Russia’s war on the world economy, which have significantly dampened expectations for economic growth, notably in Europe, the IEA said.

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This year’s expected improvement contrasts with what happened following the 2008 global financial crisis, which saw strong deteriorations in the CO2 intensity of energy supply for several years after the initial economic shock.  Energy intensity is the ratio between gross inland energy consumption and gross domestic product, calculated for a calendar year.

Wednesday’s IEA report also showed that despite the challenging situation that hydropower has faced in several regions due to droughts this year, global hydropower output is up year-on-year, contributing over one-fifth of the expected growth in renewable power.

Solar RAYS, -0.83% and wind are leading an increase in global renewable electricity generation in 2022 of more than 700 terawatt-hours (TWh), the largest annual rise on record. Without this increase, global CO2 emissions would be more than 600 million metirc tons higher this year. The rapid deployment of solar and wind is on course to account for two-thirds of the growth in renewable power generation, the IEA says.

Other reports show that the cost competitiveness of solar and wind has drawn closer to the traditional energy sources, and can be less volatile on a regional basis. Setbacks remain for scalability and transmission to and from the power grid.

Nearly 90 countries are drawing at least 5% of their electricity from wind and solar, energy and climate change data firm BloombergNEF says. That realization marks a tipping point that’s likely to attract continued investment, the research group said. The U.S. reached 5% in 2011 and surged past 20% renewable electricity last year. If the country continues with a trend that most industrial giants are following, wind and solar will account for half of U.S. power-generating capacity just 10 years from now. That would be years —or even decades— earlier than major forecasts.

Coal in place of natural gas

Still, coal’s appearance in the energy mix was on the rise this year. While electricity generation from both wind and solar PV is growing far more than any other source in 2022, coal is expected to post the next largest increase as some countries revert to coal use in response to soaring natural gas prices. In total, global CO2 emissions from coal-fired power generation are set to grow by more than 200 million metric tons, or 2%, this year, led by increases in Asia. 

A series of nuclear power plant outages, which are set to reduce global nuclear power production by over 80 TWh, also factored into the latest data. This has largely been due to more than half of France’s fleet of nuclear reactors being offline for part of the year. The drop in nuclear power generation globally has contributed to an increased use of coal and oil for electricity generation.

Uncertainty in global natural gas markets will continue to shape many key energy trends for the rest of this year and in 2023, the IEA said.

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