/ 23 June 2017

Swapping coal for gas keeps world carbon emissions flat

Smoke out: In the 10 years to 2015
Smoke out: In the 10 years to 2015

Global carbon emissions have remained flat for the third consecutive year, according to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

This follows a 2.5% annual growth in each of the 10 years before emissions stalled. That growth reflected a link that held true for much of industrial human history: the more energy that is consumed, the more economies grow.

But energy use last year grew by 1%, whereas global gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 3%. And even the small growth of energy use did not come with increased carbon emissions.

The annual BP report, a respected accounting of global energy use, said much of this was down to a fundamental change in the energy that countries use, and how efficient they are at using it.

Coal use is dropping globally, with a 5.9% reduction last year. The report noted: “The fortunes of coal appear to have taken a decisive break from the past.”

In the United States, coal use is back to the same levels as in the 1970s. Much of that drop is because the country has shifted to cheaper natural gas.

A similar drop in Chinese coal consumption has meant carbon emissions there have dropped for the past two years, after growing 75% in the decade before that.

The most remarkable shift has been in the United Kingdom, which kicked off the Industrial Revolution (and man-made global warming) by burning coal. Its last three underground coal mines closed in the last year. Coal consumption is now back to the same levels as 200 years ago. In April, Britain had its first day when all its energy was produced without burning coal.

The BP report says this global change is the result of “the increasing availability and competitiveness of natural gas and renewable energy, combined with mounting government and societal pressure to shift away from coal towards cleaner, lower-carbon fuels”.

Renewable energy sources were responsible for a third of all new energy in the past year, but still only make up 4% of the global energy mix. But BP said that, with 16% annual growth, the amount of energy renewables produce would overtake nuclear by 2019.

This would be coupled with ever-increasing energy efficiency to cut deeply into the market share of fossil fuel energy sources, such as coal-fired power plants.

South Africa is a rare exception to this trend. Its economy remains one of the most energy-inefficient in the world. That means it uses more energy to create a unit of GDP than its peers, which in turn costs more money, and means more carbon emissions.

Globally, coal and other fossil fuels are still king. Their 85% share of the world energy mix has dropped only 9% in the previous half-century. But the rate at which coal is being replaced by other energy sources is increasing.