LONDON (Reuters) – The global energy system has become greener over the last decade, but most countries are nowhere near on track to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of this century.
Net zero has become symbolically and diplomatically important for policymakers, but the goal will remain far out of reach without much faster change.
In recent years, energy consumption has become less carbon-intensive, but not fast enough to offset the rapid increase in energy use as a result of rising populations, incomes, and demand for energy services in developing countries.
Worldwide energy consumption rose at a compound annual rate of 1.3% in the ten years before the coronavirus epidemic while energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased at an average rate of 0.5%.
Replacing coal-fired power generation by gas, wind and solar, as well as improvements in combustion efficiency, has reduced emissions per unit of energy consumption in most countries.
But underlying increases in energy demand drove a rise in total energy-related emissions, according to estimates from BP.
In the advanced economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), energy consumption increased only slightly (+0.4% per year) while emissions fell (-0.4% per year).
There were significant annual emissions reductions in Denmark (-4.0%), Britain (-2.8%), Italy (-1.8%), France (-1.7%), Spain (-1.3%), Germany (-1.0%) and the United States (-0.6%).
In developing economies outside the OECD, however, there were large annual increases in both energy consumption (averaging +3.1%) and emissions (averaging +2.5%).
There were large average emissions increases in Brazil (+2.3%), China (+2.5%) and India (+4.5%), and even faster increases in Indonesia (+5.0%), the Philippines (+6.5%), Bangladesh (+8.0%) and Vietnam (+10.8%).
OECD energy-related emissions peaked as long ago as 2007 but there is no sign of a similar peak in the rest of the world (“BP Statistical Review of World Energy”, 2020).
As a result, global energy-related CO2 emissions hit a record 34.2 billion tonnes in 2019, up from 29.7 billion tonnes in 2009 and 23.1 billion tonnes in 1999.
The coronavirus epidemic, quarantines, and business cycle downturn are likely to have cut energy consumption and emissions in 2020.
However, as the economy recovers, lockdowns ease and international passenger aviation resumes, energy consumption and emissions are likely to increase again and will probably hit a new record by 2023/24.
Political leaders of the United States, the European Union and China have all committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 or 2060.
These commitments will be the centre of public and media attention in the run up to the United Nations climate summit in Britain in November.
Policymakers have identified a suite of technologies that could reduce net emissions to zero by mid-century: efficiency gains; electrification; wind, solar and nuclear power; carbon capture and storage; and hydrogen.
But what is missing is a convincing roadmap for their deployment in the advanced economies – and especially in the rest of the world where energy demand will continue increasing fastest.
Without a much faster and more widespread effort to reduce emissions, while simultaneously meeting rising demand for energy services in developing countries, the net-zero target will almost certainly be missed.
John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.