Clean energy pushes ahead of coal

April 11, 2022
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Clean energy produced more of the world’s electricity than coal in 2021, as wind and solar combined to make up more than 10 per cent of global generation for the first time, according to the latest analysis by an energy think-tank. The rise from 2020 was just 1 per cent, according to the study by Ember. But if the 10-year average compound growth rate of 20 per cent can be maintained to 2030, it would put the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Temperatures have already risen by at least 1.1C. Renewable energy production has accelerated as costs have fallen, with the proportion of electricity produced by solar and wind last year double that recorded when the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed in 2016. In 50 countries, including China and Japan for the first time, wind and solar propelled the lift in renewable energy, up from 43 countries in 2020.

Europe led the way, while the Middle East and Africa made the least progress as a region. Clean electricity sources, including solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and bioenergy, generated a total of 38 per cent of the world’s electricity last year, compared with coal-generated power of 36 per cent, according to the Ember analysis.

Solar and wind were the fastest growing sources of clean energy, jumping 23 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. However, the economic rebound following the pandemic also pushed up fossil fuel use and drove power sector emissions to an all-time high in 2021, Ember said. Global electricity demand rose by 1,414 terawatt hours in 2021, the equivalent of adding the Indian economy, Ember estimated. Much of the increased energy needs came from China and were met by coal generation.

While wind and solar generation growth picked up last year, the growth in other clean sources of power stalled. Hydro fell 2 per cent, while nuclear grew by 4 per cent and bioenergy by 6 per cent, Ember said. The think-tank noted that there were “big questions” about the emissions impact of bioenergy and that “dependent on sourcing, bioenergy can be very high-carbon”.

Separately, a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that $5.7tn in annual investment was needed every year until 2030 for solar, wind and other forms of clean power to ensure that global warming does not exceed “dangerous thresholds”. The agency also emphasised the need to improve energy efficiency, increase electrification, capture carbon emissions and expand the use of hydrogen, among the broader measures required to limit the rise in temperatures.

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