Global carbon emissions from the electricity sector fell by 2% in 2019 compared to the year before, the sharpest recorded decline in 30 years, according to the environmental thinktank Ember.
The steep drop is the result of countries phasing out coal plants and investing in renewable sources of energy. The nonprofit also noted that last year’s mild winter caused people to use less energy to heat their homes, while low economic growth further depressed emissions.
Emissions could bounce back if the global economy heats up, but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon due to the spread of the coronavirus, which has caused greenhouse gas emissions to plunge as countries restrict economic activity and travel.
The 2019 decline in carbon emissions breaks the yearslong pattern of rising emissions.
As coal gets replaced with cleaner alternatives, the carbon intensity of energy production is decreasing. In fact, it’s now 15% lower than it was in 2010, Ember found.
Despite this progress, the world is still far off from achieving the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
For that to happen, countries have to all but shutter existing coal plants and rapidly accelerate wind and solar production.
Solar and wind energy rose by 15% in 2019, but these sources only account for 8% of global electricity demand, Ember reported. Wind and solar production have to increase by 15% annually through 2030 for countries to be on pace to achieve the Paris climate agreement goals.
“The global decline of coal and power sector emissions is good news for the climate, but governments have to dramatically accelerate the electricity transition so that global coal generation collapses throughout the 2020s,” Dave Jones, electricity analyst at Ember, said in a statement.
“To switch from coal into gas is just swapping one fossil fuel for another,” he added. “The cheapest and quickest way to end coal generation is through a rapid roll-out of wind and solar.”
Some countries, like the United States, are failing to adequately move beyond fossil fuels by swapping coal for natural gas. While natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal, it releases far more methane, which warms the atmosphere at a much higher rate.
The European Union, on the other hand, is “leapfrogging” natural gas by investing heavily in renewables, according to the report. The political bloc now gets 18% of its energy from wind and solar.
Since 2007, emissions from the US electricity sector fell between 19% to 32%, whereas emissions in the EU electricity sector fell by 43%.
The global climate crisis could cause catastrophic harm to countries around the world unless immediate action is taken. Governments, rather than propping up the fossil fuel industry, have to decisively champion a new model of energy production that treats renewable energy as the foundation for economic growth and a prosperous future, Ember argues.
“Without concerted policy-maker efforts to boost wind and solar, we will fail to meet climate targets,” Jones said.