Energy Emissions Plateau, Pointing Towards the Benefits of Natural Gas
- Feb 12, 2020 5:59 pm GMT
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Global emissions plateaued to 33 billion tons in 2019, according to a new International Energy Agency report. This positive development—which came on the heels of two years of emission increases—was largely driven by a switch to natural gas in advanced economies. Meanwhile, the report also indicates the vast opportunities that still exist for natural gas to drive emissions reductions around the world.
Natural Gas Driving Emissions Reductions
The data indicate that advanced industrial nations reduced emissions by 3.2 percent, hitting their lowest levels since 1993. This helped to offset the growth in emissions by 1.9 percent in developing nations. According to IEA, leading the decline in advanced industrial nations was the power sector—in 2012 the power sector accounted for a high of 42 percent of emissions. In 2019, it only accounted for 36 percent.
Much of this improvement had to do with less reliance on coal-fired plants, with power generation from this fuel source declining by almost 15 percent. These countries instead turned to renewables and, to a larger extent, natural gas to generate power. This was seen most strongly in the United States:
“The United States saw the largest decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019 on a country basis …US emissions are now down almost 1 Gt from their peak in the year 2000, the largest absolute decline by any country over that period. A 15 percent reduction in the use of coal for power generation underpinned the decline in overall US emissions in 2019. Coal-fired power plants faced even stronger competition from natural gas-fired generation, with benchmark gas prices an average of 45% lower than 2018 levels. As a result, gas increased its share in electricity generation to a record high of 37 percent.” (emphasis added)
The decline in emissions, driven largely by a switch to natural gas, provides a promising roadmap to other nations in addressing global climate change. As IEA executive director Fatih Birol said:
“This welcome halt in emissions growth is grounds for optimism that we can tackle the climate challenge this decade. We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth.”
A Path Forward for Developing Nations
Like the United States, other advanced industrial nations saw reductions in overall emissions. The European Union enjoyed a 12 percent reduction in emissions from the power sector—and a 5 percent emissions reduction overall—“resulting from increasing renewables and switching from coal to gas.” Likewise, Japan’s emissions decreased by 4.3 percent, largely driven by an increase in nuclear power output.
Unfortunately, emissions output increased in developing nations, with 80 percent of the increase coming from Asia. Notably, coal still accounts for more than half of the energy use in the region. In both China and India, emissions rose though the increase was more modest in the latter. Furthermore, while emissions from the power sector decreased in India, emissions grew “in other sectors of the Indian economy, notably transport.”
Despite this rise in emissions in developing nations, the IEA report strongly demonstrates the large and positive impact that natural gas can have in reducing emissions, even above and beyond other energy sources like renewables. Between 2005 and 2018, a shift to natural gas for electricity generation reduced emissions 57 percent more than the emissions reductions realized through renewables.
The results of the latest IEA report should help create a positive roadmap for a future with fewer global emissions. At a time when the economy was growing by 2.9 percent—which should result in more energy use—advanced industrial nations were able to reduce their emissions output thanks largely to a switch to natural gas. Developing nations can continue this trend—maintaining economic growth while creating less environmental impact—by taking advantage of the supply and low cost of natural gas.
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