IEA: Electrification no panacea for global warming

LONDON • Driving electric cars and scrapping your natural gas-fired boiler won’t make a dent in global carbon emissions, and may even increase pollution levels.

Higher electrification may lead to oil demand peaking by 2030, but any reduction in emissions from the likes of electric vehicles will be offset by the increased use of power plants to charge them, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) annual World Energy Outlook, which plots different scenarios of future energy use.

In order to significantly reduce harmful pollution by 2040, electrification will have to form part of a comprehensive package of policies to reduce power sector carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency, the Paris-based body that advises nations on energy policy said.

The clamour for global action to dramatically cut emissions has reached fever pitch in recent months following the publication of a United Nations report that called for annual investment of US$2.4 trillion (RM10.06 trillion) in clean energy to avoid irreversible damage to the world. A common belief is that the electrification of transport and heating systems will go a long way to meeting stringent pollution targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Electrification is a necessary part of deep decarbonisation because it is relatively easy to decarbonise the power sector,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at Greenpeace’s air pollution unit. “But electrification only helps if the power sector moves rapidly towards zero emissions.”

Since the turn of the century, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from utilities have grown at an average of 2.3% a year, with coal-fired plants the biggest culprit, the IEA said. However, the rate of growth is slowing due to more electricity from booming renewable energy (RE) markets and an improvement in fossil-fuel plant efficiency.

Total global CO2 output rose 1% last year and the IEA expects that to reach a record high in 2018.

The opportunity for electrification is startling. From 19% of total final energy consumption today, it could potentially reach 65% as policies to electrify mobility and heat come into force around the world.

RE is playing its part with wind and solar now providing 6% of global electricity generation compared to 0.2% in 2000. Investment in the power sector hit US$750 billion in 2017, higher than oil and gas investment for the second straight year, the agency said.

The look and shape of the global power fleet is rapidly changing. In less than two years, more than 150GW of new coal capacity will come online. That’s less than 160GW of new wind production and 230GW of solar. Gas-fired generation will overtake coal by the middle of the next decade and solar will outstrip the dirtiest fossil fuel before 2040.

About the same time, battery storage capacity will reach 220GW, equivalent to India’s total coal fleet today.

Asia’s influence in the world energy markets is laid bare in this year’s report. The continent makes up half of the world’s growth in natural gas use and 60% of the increase in wind and solar capacity. It will also account for all of the growth in coal and nuclear, given the fuels’ declining use in other parts of the world.

Chinese-owned power companies now account for more than one-eighth of global instaled capacity, with six of the leading 10 utilities hailing from the Asian nation. In 2003, there were no Chinese companies in the top 15, according to the IEA.

“If the world is serious about meeting its climate targets then, as of today, there needs to be a systematic preference for investment in sustainable energy technologies,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s ED. “To be successful, this will need an unprecedented global political and economic effort.” — Bloomberg