Chart: The world is approaching a peak in electricity emissions

Electricity production is the biggest source of CO2 emissions in the world, but a new report suggests the grid’s dirtiest days will soon be behind it.
By Dan McCarthy

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A man with dark skin wearing beige clothes cleans a solar array with a mop. A graphic overlay reads "chart of the week"
(Canary Media/Prashanth Vishwanathan /IWMI)

Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

The biggest source of carbon emissions in the world is electricity production, but a new report suggests the grid’s dirtiest days will soon be behind it.

Data from clean-energy think tank Ember shows that in the first half of this year, global power-sector emissions rose by just 0.2 percent, thanks largely to the planet-spanning embrace of wind and solar.

Global power-sector emissions have actually dropped a few times in the past, as shown in the chart. But these situations were the result of global economic shocks,” Ember writes, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the Covid-19 pandemic. In other words, they were anomalies. This year’s flatline, in contrast, may represent the start of a structural” trend of declining power-sector emissions, according to Ember.

Power production may be dirty, but it’s a mess we have learned how to clean up: replace fossil-fuel generation — in particular, coal — as fast as possible with wind, solar, batteries and possibly even nuclear reactors or hydropower, if you can get them built.

That formula has helped create the current plateau in power-sector emissions. Carbon-free sources produced 40 percent of global electricity in the first half of the year, with solar and wind accounting for 14 percent of global power production. Other factors, such as lower electricity demand and declining coal use, have also helped reduce grid emissions in certain countries.

The EU, U.S., Japan and South Korea all saw significant decreases in power-sector emissions in the first half of this year. But those declines were offset by a jump in emissions from China, which relied on fossil fuels amid a historic drought-driven drop in hydropower generation. India also saw power-sector emissions rise, albeit at a much slower pace than a year ago thanks to surging solar deployment. The country accounted for about 12 percent of global growth in solar generation in the first six months of the year, matching the U.S. and EU.

The report of a potential plateau in power-sector emissions comes weeks after International Energy Agency director Fatih Birol predicted that a peak in fossil fuel demand would arrive this decade. But peaks and plateaus, while important milestones, aren’t worth much on their own. And they’re worth even less when words like potential” or may” are included. What the planet needs is a rapid and unequivocal freefall in emissions — across the power sector and beyond.

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Dan McCarthy is news editor at Canary Media.