The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its annual “Global Energy Review” report, and while there is some good news about the adoption of renewables, there is also some rather alarming news about an anticipated emissions surge in 2021.

Update, April 20, 3:55 p.m. EDT: The Washington Post has issued breaking news:

President Biden this week will pledge to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by [2030], according to two individuals briefed on the plan, as part of an aggressive push to combat climate change at home and convince other major economies around the world to follow suit.

The planned US pledge represents a near-doubling of the target that the nation committed to under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, when Barack Obama vowed to cut emissions between 26 and 28% compared to 2005 levels.

The White House says a final decision has not been made.

The good news about renewables

Let’s start with the IEA’s positive findings about clean energy globally. Renewable electricity generation in 2021 is expected to expand by more than 8% to reach 8 300 TWh, the fastest year-on-year growth since the 1970s. Renewables are set to provide 30% of electricity generation worldwide in 2021.

Solar and wind are set to contribute two-thirds of renewables growth. China alone should account for almost half of the global increase in renewable electricity in 2021, followed by the US, the European Union, and India. 

Wind is set for the largest increase in clean energy, growing by 275 TWh, or almost 17%. China is expected to generate 600 TWh and the United States 400 TWh through 2021, together representing more than half of global wind output.

Globally, solar is expected to increase by 145 TWh, almost 18%, to approach 1,000 TWh in 2021. China (pictured above) will continue to be the largest solar market, and US adoption of solar will continue to grow. Hydropower will also increase, as will bioenergy. The IEA concludes:

Increases in electricity generation from all renewable sources should push the share of renewables in the electricity generation mix to an all-time high of 30% in 2021. Combined with nuclear, low-carbon sources of generation well and truly exceed output from the world’s coal plants in 2021.

The bad news about coal

Coal use may be rapidly declining in Europe and the US, but that’s certainly not the case in China. Global coal demand declined 4% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the IEA expects coal use to “rebound strongly in 2021.”

The IEA reports:

Global energy demand is set to increase by 4.6% in 2021 – led by emerging markets and developing economies – pushing it above its 2019 level. Demand for all fossil fuels is on course to grow significantly in 2021, with both coal and gas set to rise above their 2019 levels. Oil is also rebounding strongly but is expected to stay below its 2019 peak, as the aviation sector remains under pressure.

The expected rise in coal use dwarfs that of renewables by almost 60%, despite accelerating demand for renewables. More than 80% of the projected growth in coal demand in 2021 is set to come from Asia, led by China. Coal use in the United States and the European Union is also on course to increase but will remain well below pre-crisis levels.

The result of this strong coal rebound is a projected surge of carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history. That’s an increase of almost 5% this year to 33 billion tonnes.

Electrek’s Take

As IEA executive director Fatih Birol said:

Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022. The Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by US President Joe Biden this week is a critical moment to commit to clear and immediate action ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.

And in the energy sector, Saara Kujala, general manager business development at Wärtsilä Energy, told Electrek:

COVID-19 led to global leaders calling for us to Build Back Better, but the IEA Energy Review demonstrates that there is a discrepancy between the narrative and the policy, given how emissions are bouncing back in 2021.

2021 may well be seen as the crucial year for how the world tackled the climate crisis, but only if ambition is met with real action.

Well, quite. It can’t be said enough: We are in a global climate emergency and need to implement policy now.

The fact that China (No. 1 polluter) and the US (No. 2 polluter) agreed to collaborate to fight climate change in the last few days is a start, especially considering the tensions between the two countries on many other matters. Energy and environmental groups expected that fossil-fuels use would get worse before it got better, but this predicted emissions surge simply isn’t something we can just accept with a shrug.

Governments are throwing out all sorts of ambitious targets, but we’ve got to see action. For example, I watched Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Cecil Roberts, president of US coal’s largest union, the United Mine Workers of America, discuss a possible transition from coal to renewables in Appalachia with the National Press Club yesterday. (You can watch the full discussion here.) It was an important and intriguing conversation. Coal workers are rightly concerned about future work and training as their industry declines, but I didn’t hear about any concrete road maps out of coal from Manchin.

Surely Manchin, of all people – the chair of the US Energy and Natural Resources Committee – should be able to speak definitively and comprehensively about renewable adoption and job creation, rather than vaguely repeating himself about the possibilities of carbon capture and sequestration. Even Roberts called for federal support for wind turbines and solar panels to be manufactured in Appalachia, and spells out a plan in the union’s new report (although it still leans heavily on coal).

Manchin complained about China’s massive pollution output. He also repeatedly said that the US should be leading in renewable innovation and manufacturing (and rather ridiculously said he’s for “innovation, not elimination” of coal). He’s right that China both leads in pollution output and the manufacturing of renewables.

So I’d like to see Manchin throw his full weight behind Biden’s infrastructure plan to eliminate fossil fuels and get his constituents clean energy jobs, and then support effective collaboration with China to get both countries off the coal path. There is no more room for hedging. Coal must be ditched by everyone.

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