Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – This is a bad news, good news story. Cathy Bussewitz at the Associated Press reports that carbon dioxide emissions reached an all-time high in 2022, of 36.8 gigatons. That is more CO2 spewed into the atmosphere by humanity in just one year than ever before. CO2 emissions were up nearly 1% over 2021, spurred by the relaxing of COVID-era restrictions.
Bussewitz notes that the climate emergency itself is getting in the way of our attempts to fight the climate emergency. The heating of the earth has intensified drought conditions in some parts of the world, such as the American Southwest, which caused water levels to fall in hydroelectric dams and reduced the amount of electricity that could be produced in this low-carbon manner. People turned to fossil gas instead. Likewise, the heat waves that are made worse and longer by the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere caused people to run their air conditioners more, which caused the production of more carbon dioxide, which causes it to get hotter. . . in a vicious circle.
This finding is bad news because we need to be going in the opposite direction, reducing how much CO2 we put into the atmosphere by burning gasoline, fossil gas and coal by 7% a year. That is the only way to avoid our climate system going chaotic, as it will if earth gets too hot. What happened last year is like a person in danger of dying from obesity vowing to take off 14 pounds in a year and instead putting on two pounds.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that emissions grew less than 1% last year, whereas in 2021 they had grown 6%. Moreover, 2022 challenged the energy industry as have few other years in recent memory, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the boycott of and sanctions against Russian oil and gas. Some analysts had predicted a big return to coal in Europe to deal with this crisis. On the whole, with a few exceptions, that did not happen. Coal use did tick up slightly in Asia, with a 1.6% increase, but that after all is not very much.
So in a way it is good news, given the high prices for fossil gas caused by the war and the boycotts, and given the further post-COVID opening of major economies, that Europe and the U.S. avoided any significant revival of coal and that emissions were only up 0.9% globally for the year.
There is more good news buried in the bad. Fathi Birol at the International Energy Agency argues that the reason for which the rate of emissions increase was so small in 2022 was because a huge amount of green energy came online.
At some point in the near future, enough green energy will have been installed to achieve that so far elusive goal of a 7% a year reduction in CO2 emissions instead of an increase, however modest.
In fact, even last year, if some nuclear plants had not closed and if some Asian countries had not turned to coal, CO2 emissions would have fallen. Since coal puts out twice as much CO2 as fossil gas, for countries to dump the latter (made expensive by the Russian war on Ukraine) and pick up the former guaranteed an increase in emissions.
Again, however, there was good news in there. Emissions from fossil gas plummeted a stunning 13% in Europe.
Petroleum use was also up, but about half of the increase was in the aviation sector, as travel continued to rebound. Some 10 million electric vehicles were sold, making up 14% of the world’s car purchases. Since 28% of CO2 is emitted by the transportation sector, the rapid ramp-up in EV sales promises to make a significant dent in petroleum use in coming years.
One reason for which coal’s rebound was so puny was the rapid increase in wind and solar electricity generation. The IEA report says, “Renewables met 90% of last year’s global growth in electricity generation. Solar PV and wind generation each increased by around 275 TWh [terrawatt hours], a new annual record.”
That is, more new electricity was produced by wind and solar in 2022 than ever before, and almost all new demand was met by those sources.
More good news. If Europe were the whole world, we really would have seen a decline in carbon emissions. Europe’s were down for the year by 2.5%!
Wind and solar power generation in Europe grew by a gargantuan 15% in 2022, which forestalled a big move to coal. For the first time, wind and solar together produced more electricity for Europe last year than did either fossil gas or nuclear energy.
In the end, we have to think about the dog that didn’t bark, and the shoe that didn’t drop. Wind and solar grew so fast around the world that they avoided what otherwise would have been 465 Mt CO2 in power sector emissions. EVs and heat pumps also reduced potential emissions, by 85 megatons. If it hadn’t been for green energy, the world’s increase in emissions last year would have been closer to 3%, three times as much.
In the end the good news is good indeed. Despite the likelihood that China will be a big emitter again this year as President Xi Jinping lifts the “zero COVID” policy and the Chinese economy picks up considerably, the IAE notes that government investments in green energy, including the $367 billion in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, are becoming so large that they are producing a rapid greening of the electricity sector. These fixed investments will have a bigger and bigger impact in coming years.