A turnaround of global greenhouse gas emission trends on the horizon – regardless of Pres. Trump

turnaroundRecent developments, particularly in India and China, give hope that the rise of global coal use has permanently stopped, and growth in global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions can reverse much earlier than thought only two years ago.

China’s coal consumption has declined from 2013 onwards, and is predicted to have fallen again significantly also in 2016. India has stated that coal-fired power plants currently under construction may not be needed. With the two largest coal consumers slowing growth, global use could now permanently be on a downward trend, bringing the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement closer within reach.

This is in stark contrast to the USA, where the newly elected President Trump has already started to reverse the climate policies of the Obama Administration and plans to revive American coal industry. However, this is unlikely to affect the positive trend on the global level.

More analysis soon by our Climate Action Tracker.

Background

To keep within the temperature limit set by the Paris Agreement (“well below 2°C” and “towards 1.5°C”), global greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector need to decline to zero by the middle of the century (Rogelj et al., 2015). This would mean that in an ideal world, no new coal-fired power plants (unless equipped with carbon capture and storage) would be built as of today, since they would still be operating and emitting by the middle of the century.

For countries such as India and China, this was considered a serious and almost insurmountable challenge, as coal-fired power plants were considered necessary to satisfy the energy demand of a growing and developing nation.

However, recent observations in both countries show they may already have overcome this challenge. The following sections provide an overview.

India

Only two years ago it would have been unimaginable that the Indian government would even think about stopping building new coal fired power plants. It was the common understanding that the longstanding objective to provide electricity to the growing population could only be reached with coal.

Now the new draft energy plan issued in December 2016 states that the 50GW coal capacity (emitting roughly 0.3 GtCO2e a year if built[1]) that are currently under construction may not be needed in the next five years and are only “likely to yield benefits” in the five years after that.[2]

What happened? To satisfy the growing demand for electricity, the Indian government had planned large numbers of new coal-fired power plants. These plants take around ten years from initial planning to realisation. But in the last ten years the energy market has changed completely: the price of renewable energy from wind and solar has dropped drastically. Renewables are now cost-competitive and being built at a much faster rate than coal-fired power plants.

Re-evaluating the situation, the Indian government realised that rapid renewables deployment has contributed to significant overcapacities in the electricity system, while demand was not growing as fast as expected. As a result, the new Indian energy plan predicts an electricity production capacity from renewables by 2027 as high as 57%, which is much higher than the 40% non-fossil by 2030 stated in the Indian Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement.

India will therefore overachieve its contribution to the Paris Agreement, accelerating its pace of limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, moving closer to what is necessary to achieve the Paris long-term temperature goal.

China

A very similar trend has occurred in China a little earlier. The government recently cancelled plans for just over 100 coal-fired power plants totalling 120 GW capacity,[3] which would have emitted roughly 0.6 GtCO2 annually.[4] Some of the plants were already under construction. As in India, the fast growth of renewable energy and the slowed economic growth made these new plants obsolete.

Chinese total CO2 emissions from energy use (coal, oil and gas) are reported to have declined from 2014 to 2015 (see Global Carbon Project). Coal consumption in China has declined from 2013 to 2015 and is expected to have significantly declined again in 2016. Official numbers for the full year 2016 are yet to be published, but coal production values for the first 11 months point in the same direction.

With these recent activities, China may have already peaked its total CO2 emissions from energy use in 2014 (one year after coal peaked), much earlier than “before 2030” as stated in its nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement.[5] China is set to overachieve its contribution to the Paris Agreement by a wide margin, accelerating its pace of limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and moving closer to what is necessary to achieve the Paris long-term temperature goal.

USA

The positive developments in India and China are the complete opposite to recent developments in the USA: With President Donald Trump taking office in the White House, objectives for climate policy at the federal level in the USA have already drastically changed.

In the “America First Energy Plan”, the Trump Administration states

  • It is “committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan”
  • It “will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution”
  • It is “also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry”
  • “President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.” Under President Obama, the EPA was the vehicle to impose regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This new plan is already being implemented (see regular updates):

President Trump has reopened the doors for the fossil fuel pipelines Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline. These pipelines had been stalled under the Obama Administration. If built, they would increase the lock-in of fossil fuel infrastructure and therefore lead to higher US CO2 emissions than without.

The Trump Administration has also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review all its web content and to check that publications from their scientists are in line with the views of the new administration. This was criticized as potentially violating the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. Earlier reports stated that EPA had been requested to remove climate change-relevant content completely from its website, but the Trump administration later backed off these plans.

In the Climate Action Tracker, we earlier showed that the Obama Administration’s enacted climate polices, including the Clean Power Plan, would reduce US emissions by 9% below 2005 levels by 2025 (5% above 1990 levels). If the Clean Power Plan were to be permanently stopped, emissions in 2025 would likely be even higher, at 6% below 2005 levels (8% above 1990 levels), reverting the downward trend of the last decade and setting emissions to 2030 to increase instead.

With the activities set in motion by the new federal government, the USA will likely fail to meet its nationally determined contribution by a wide margin. Noting also that the US national contribution to the Paris Agreement itself is not yet consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit.

Summing up

The positive developments in India and China together may have a significant impact on global greenhouse gas emissions on the order of roughly 1 GtCO2 in the next five years. They could outweigh the potential negative effects in the USA in the short term. They are also larger than the last year-to-year increase of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (smaller than 100 MtCO2 from 2014 to 2015 and from 2015 to 2016 compared to the total of 36 GtCO2 according to the preliminary estimates of the Global Carbon Project of November 2016.)

So regardless of actions by the new US Administration, there is hope that the rise of global coal use has permanently stopped, and growth in global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions can reverse in the next few years, much earlier than thought only two years ago.

[1] Assuming 90% load and 700gCO2/kWh

[2] http://www.cea.nic.in/reports/committee/nep/nep_dec.pdf, page xxv, bullet 12.

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/world/asia/china-coal-power-plants-pollution.html?_r=0 or http://news.bjx.com.cn/html/20170116/803648.shtml or http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/01/16/china-coal-power-overcapacity-crackdown/. Earlier analysis reported 85 plants, but that was updated subsequently.

[4] Assuming 90% load and 700gCO2/kWh

[5] The contribution for the Paris Agreement states the aim to peak CO2 emissions, i.e. energy related, but also process and land-use CO2. The downward trend holds also for all CO2 emissions, because process emissions are already on a downward trend and land use CO2 is small compared to others.