What’s Happening? Global Emissions Are Still Rising


After the world has spent a few trillion dollars over the last ten years trying to decarbonize, $503 billion in 2020 alone, carbon emissions are still increasing. Even as the pandemic slowed that growth for a bit during 2020-2021, emissions in 2022-2023 will break all records and exceed 55 billion tons/year by more than a little.

According to the International Energy Agency, global electricity demand will increase by 5% in 2021 and 4% in 2022, and half of this increase will be from fossil fuels, particularly new coal in the developing world. CO2 emissions from the power sector will rise to record levels in 2022, exceeding 34 billion tons.

After dropping 4% in 2020, nuclear power generation is forecast to grow, but only by 1% in 2021. This is one important reason why carbon emissions will grow so much during this period.

Renewable electricity generation, which grew 7% in 2020, will continue to rise, but cannot keep up with increasing demand, not by half.

Until growth in renewables and nuclear exceeds that of fossil fuels, and by a lot, we will make no headway against the environmental problems we need to solve in the next three decades.

Renewables and fully electric vehicles aside, all fossil fuels are increasing worldwide primarily because of economic growth in the developing world. Even coal is increasing worldwide, producing more power than hydro, nuclear and renewables combined.

While the developed world is switching from coal to natural gas, the developing world sees coal as their savior. This not because coal is cheapest – it’s not. Of all energy sources, coal is merely the easiest to set up in a poor or developing country that has little existing infrastructure. It is the easiest to transport – by ship, rail or truck. It is straightforward to build a coal-fired power plant. And to operate it.

Thus, fossil fuel will keep increasing.

“Our analyses show that the short-term trend in global electricity markets is not consistent with a zero emissions pathway,” the IEA said.

While there plenty of Roadmaps to Net Zero by 2050, there are no actual projections that this will happen. No serious projections even have global emissions much lower than 30 billion tons/year by 2050. That’s because the use of oil and natural gas keep increasing and only flatten by about 2040 They don’t ever decrease until the second half of this century. And coal decreases by only 15% or so.

This is not the trend that’s going to get us to a low-carbon future. In fact, the only things that will get us to net-zero must include some form of the following , although other issues like infrastructure needs will also be essential:

– stop building any new fossil fuel plants as soon as possible; once built you’re locked into that fossil fuel for at least 40 years

– stop closing perfectly performing and safe nuclear plants that have already been relicensed for another 20 or 40 years

– install 3,500,000 of new MW of wind turbines (12 trillion kWhs/year)

– install 1,400,000 MW of new nuclear reactors, particularly SMRs that are especially ideal for load-following renewables (11 trillion kWhs/year)

– install 2,100,000 MW of new solar (7 trillion kWhs/year)

– install 1,200,000 new MW of hydro w/80,000 MW existing (7 trillion kWhs/yr)

– secure sources of Li, Co, Nd, Fe and other metals needed to build these alternatives, especially to build the batteries for enough fully electric vehicles to replace oil.

– build a fleet of 3 billion fully electric vehicles by 2050, much fewer will not sufficiently drop our consumption of oil.

It turns out that the cost of this new low-carbon energy mix is about the same as business-as-usual, $65 trillion versus $63 trillion, over about 30 years. It’s just that more of the total cost is in up-front capital costs instead of fuel costs – $28 trillion versus $11 trillion. It will take over 12 billion tons of steel alone for that much renewables (annual global output of steel is presently 1.6 billion tons).

Cost estimates by the International Renewable Energy Agency for decarbonizing the world, all sectors not just energy, top $100 trillion by 2050. In a recent McKinsey report, the estimated cost of decarbonizing just the industrial sector would be about $21 trillion between now and 2050, although both could be significantly lower if technologies and efficiencies continue to advance.

But it’s the lack of nuclear that really puts the stake in the heart of the decarbonization dream. The Mochovce 3 nuclear unit in the Slovak Republic is expected to start commercial operation this year, but the retirement of the Fessenheim nuclear plant in France and Ringhals in Sweden in 2020 negates that.

With the retirement of 4.3 GW of nuclear in Germany, 2 GW in the U.K. and 1 GW in Belgium before the end of 2022, nuclear electricity generation is likely to drop again in 2022, by 3%, even if the Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland starts commercial operation.

In the U.S., EIA predicts that 9.1 GW of nuclear capacity will be added by 2050, as well as another 4.7 GW of added nuclear capacity resulting from uprates – operational changes that allow existing plants to produce more electricity.

However, more than offsetting this additional capacity, are projected retirements of 29.9 GW of nuclear capacity through 2050, especially those expected to close by 2026. Indian Point’s foolish closing recently has erased most of New York’s progress in lowering their carbon footprint with renewables.

China is planning 180 GW of new nuclear plants, big ones, by 2035. If the rest of the world followed suit in proportion, we would have a chance.

So, if you think we’ve been doing a reasonable job of curbing fossil fuel use, even after spending some trillions of dollars, you are sadly mistaken. It’s nice to have a plan, but if it’s not based in reality, it’s not going to happen.


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