Renewable energy grew by the largest amount ever last year, while coal-fired electricity also reached a record high, according to new global data from oil giant BP.
However, set against continued rapid rises in energy demand fuelled by oil and gas, renewables were not enough to prevent global CO2 emissions rising significantly for the first time in four years, the figures show.
This was partly because cyclical economic changes had flattered progress in previous years and, last year, cancelled out some of the slow, continuing shift towards a lower-carbon energy, BP says.
Still, the goals of the Paris Agreement look as far away as ever in the wake of these latest figures, given emissions must, ultimately, reach net-zero by mid-century to avoid dangerous warming.
Carbon Brief runs through the 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which, for the first time, covers all sources of electricity and the key materials needed for electric vehicles.
Another renewables record
Wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable energy sources grew by 69m tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2017. This was their largest-ever increase, breaking last year’s record of 53Mtoe. Renewables were also the fastest-growing source of energy last year, up 17%.
Nevertheless, all low-carbon sources together met just a third of the 253Mtoe (2.2%) increase in global energy demand in 2017. Fossil fuels met the remaining two thirds, with gas (+83Mtoe, 3.0%) the single-largest source of new energy supply last year.
Changes in the sources of global energy supply between 2016 and 2017, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Last year saw the strongest energy demand growth since 2013, BP says, with the 2.2% rise being well above the 1.7% average of the past decade. Developing countries accounted for four-fifths of the increase, BP says, though the EU also saw above-average demand growth.
Meanwhile, global coal demand returned to growth after three years of declines, rising 25Mtoe (1.0%). However, coal use remains 3.5% below a peak reached in 2013 (see below for more).
CO2 returns to growth
The rise in demand for coal, oil and gas means global CO2 emissions grew by 426MtCO2 (1.6%) in 2017, BP’s figures suggest. This follows three years of flat or falling emissions, when coal use was also falling. BP’s data broadly aligns with a 2% growth estimate published last November by the Global Carbon Project.
Left: Global energy-related CO2 emissions between 1965 and 2017, broken down by key countries and regions, millions of tonnes of CO2. Right: Annual changes over the past five years, millions of tonnes of CO2. Note that the percentage changes shown when hovering over the left-hand chart do not account for 2016 being a leap year and so are slightly different to those cited in the article. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
CO2 output grew in most countries around the world in 2017, which BP attributes to stronger economic growth and weaker improvements in energy efficiency.
This includes a 42MtCO2 (1.5%) increase in the EU, where emissions have grown in each of the past three years. By 2014, the EU had already beaten its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. Though emissions remain below this target level, the current trend is pointing in the wrong direction for its more stringent 40% by 2030 goal.
China’s energy-related CO2 grew 119MtCO2 to a new high of 9,233MtCO2 in 2017, up 1.6% after accounting for the leap year in 2016. This is less than had been expected, though early indications suggest CO2 could rise even faster in 2018.
Other notable increases include a 93MtCO2 (4.4%) rise in India, a 45MtCO2 (12.7%) rise in Turkey (see Carbon Brief’s recent profile of Turkey for more). There were also increases of 35MtCO2 (6.1%) in Iran, 26MtCO2 (5.5%) in Indonesia and 19MtCO2 (6.9%) in Spain.
The largest falls were in the US, down 42MtCO2 (0.5%) in 2017 – a slower decline than in the previous two years – and Ukraine, down 21MtCO2 (10.1%) on falling coal use. In the UK, emissions fell 12MtCO2 (2.7%) to levels last since in 1890, helping mask increases in other EU member states. German emissions were level in 2017.
Oil and gas keep rising
The three years of flat global CO2 emissions were due to falling coal use cancelling out rising demand for oil and gas.
This year, coal returned to growth – though it remains below its 2013 peak – and the other fossil fuels continued their relentless rise. Gas demand is up by 24% in the past decade and oil by 11%.
The 83Mtoe global rise in gas demand in 2017 was driven in roughly equal parts by China, the Middle East and Europe, the figures show. China had the fastest growth (15%), from a low base, due to efforts to clean up residential heating and small industrial boilers.
The growth in oil demand was spread more evenly around the globe, driven by relatively low prices – averaging $54 a barrel in 2017 – even though this was an increase from $44 in 2016.
Top panel: Global energy use by source between 1965 and 2017, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Lower panels: Fossil fuels’ share of the global energy mix over the same period, %. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Non-hydro renewables are the fastest-growing source of global energy supplies – up 17% last year and 355% in a decade – yet they continue to trail behind fossil fuels, along with nuclear and hydro.
All told, the share of global energy use met by fossil fuels fell again in 2017 to the lowest level recorded by BP of 85.0%, down from 85.3% in 2016.
India drives coal higher
In climate terms, coal looms largest within that 85% of world energy met by fossil fuels, accounting for around half of global energy-related CO2 emissions. After several years of “free-fall”, BP’s chief economist Spencer Dale says coal experienced a “mini-revival” in 2017, with demand rising by 1%.
China was the engine of coal demand growth through the 2000s and it now burns half the global total. Yet despite a small (0.5%) uptick in 2017, its coal demand remains 3.9% below a 2013 peak. Indeed, this was an all-time peak for China, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Now, the IEA expects India and the rest of Asia to drive increases in global coal demand over the coming decades. (Note that the IEA has repeatedly overestimated coal demand growth). In 2017, at least, this prediction proved accurate, as India accounted for more than half the global increase.
(The 4.8% increase in Indian coal demand in 2017 was slower than the 6.3% average over the past decade. See below for more on India and coal.)
Left: Global coal use between 1965 and 2017, broken down by key countries and regions, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Right: Annual changes over the past five years, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Elsewhere, dramatic recent reductions in US coal demand almost came to an end in 2017, the figures show. The 2.2% fall in US coal use follows cuts of 14% in 2015 and 9% in 2016. Still, US coal demand is in long-term decline due to competition from cheaper gas and renewables.
New record for coal power
One major reason for the rebound in global coal demand last year was strong growth in coal-fired electricity generation. This grew by 272 terawatt hours (TWh, 3.2%) to 9,723TWh, a new record. China (197TWh) and India (51TWh) accounted for more than 90% of this increase.
Coal – the world’s top source of electricity by far – was, therefore, also a major contributor to meeting the 621TWh (2.8%) increase in global demand last year.
Top panel: Global electricity use by source between 1965 and 2017, terawatt hours. Lower panels: Fossil fuels’ share of the global electricity mix over the same period, %. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
Notably, debt-fuelled growth in China overwhelmed the ability of low-carbon supplies to meet rising demand, meaning the country turned to coal to fill the gap.
Overall, fossil fuels’ share of the global electricity mix fell half a percentage point last year, to 64.7%. This is the same as in 2001, but down from a 2007 high of 67.9% at the height of China’s coal-power boom. Coal’s 38% share in 2017 is the same as it was in 1985, though, again, this is down from a 2007 high of 41.2%.
One reason for this slow progress has been rising demand for electricity, with even rapid rises in renewables barely keeping up. Another is the stagnation of nuclear energy, which grew until the early 2000s before stalling. It continues to advance in China, while retreating elsewhere.
Meteoric rise of wind and solar
Meanwhile, the fastest growth in percentage terms came from wind and solar, which continued their meteoric rise. Solar grew 35%, including 41% in the US, 76% in China and 87% in India. For wind, there was a more modest, but still significant increase of 17%, including 12% in the US, 19% in the EU and 21% in both China and India.
Solar’s accelerating rise looks set to falter this year after surprise policy moves in China, which has been underpinning growth. This is expected to cut solar additions in China’s domestic market, while forcing module prices down another 34% this year, potentially raising growth elsewhere.
Left: Global wind and solar use between 1965 and 2017, broken down by key countries and regions, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Right: Annual changes over the past five years, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 and Carbon Brief analysis. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
The BP figures show wind and solar met 45% of the increase in global electricity demand last year. This rises to 57% including other low-carbon sources, with fossil fuels meeting the remainder.
Apart from including a full breakdown of global electricity sources for the first time, BP has made a number of other notable changes in this year’s statistical review.
One is to start tracking data on key materials needed for electric vehicles, including lithium, cobalt and rare-earth metals – covered in a recent in-depth Carbon Brief explainer.
#BPstats this year includes data on key materials needed for EVs…
Also full breakdown of electricity generation by fuel (previously only low-carbon sources broken down) pic.twitter.com/9u0p46vEiI
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) June 13, 2018
A more technical yet consequential set of changes this year is to adjust BP’s assumptions on the energy content of different fuels. BP now assumes each barrel of oil contains 3% more energy while each cubic metre of gas contains 5% less energy. Related adjustments mean global CO2 emissions were revised down in all years, but year-to-year changes are relatively unaffected.
BP has also once again adjusted its figures for coal use, shaving a small amount off its estimate for demand in 2016. This means the 1% increase in demand in 2017 leaves global coal use at the same level BP thought it had reached last year.
— Andrei Ilaș (@Andrei_Ilas) June 13, 2018
As ever, the BP figures offer a stark reality check for global efforts to tackle climate change, showing that the world still remains overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels.
Combined with the increase in CO2 emissions last year, the BP data inspired several newspapers to suggest the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change are at risk – or even already “dashed”. It is, of course, unarguable that global emissions are going in the wrong direction.
Yet the energy trends BP illustrates are not necessarily incompatible with meeting the Paris goals. In Shell’s “well-below 2C” pathway, for example, coal use plateaus until around 2025 before falling fast. Gas demand continues to increase until the early 2030s and oil peaks in 2025. (Some other pathways to well-below 2C include much earlier and more rapid cuts in fossil fuel use.)
The global transition towards lower-carbon sources of energy – including gas – continued in 2017, says BP, but cyclical factors “reversed or slowed some of the gains from prior years”.
Rather than dashing hopes of meeting the Paris goals, the BP data once again highlights the scale of the challenge, if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.
Teaser photo credit: Yosu Gas ship on Huangpu river before the skyline of Pudong, Shanghai, China. Credit: Stephane ROUSSEL / Alamy Stock Photo.