Wind and solar drive a record fall in coal in 2020

But only because the pandemic paused rising electricity demand

by | Mar 29, 2021


Research reveals that electricity generated by new wind turbines and solar panels in 2020 (+315 TWh) helped to force a record fall in global coal power (-346 TWh). However, the report cautions that this was only possible because the pandemic paused the world’s rising demand for electricity. Since 2015, rising electricity demand has outpaced growth in clean electricity and led to an increase in fossil fuels and emissions. 

“As electricity demand resumes and increases, the world will need to do a lot more to ensure coal keeps falling,” said Dave Jones, Ember’s global lead. “With coal use already rising in 2021 across China, India and the US, it’s clear the big step-up is yet to happen.”

The Global Electricity Review published today by energy think tank Ember analyses electricity data from every country in the world to give the first accurate view of the global electricity transition in 2020.

Pandemic pause helps wind and solar push coal to a record fall

The pandemic brought the world to a halt in 2020 and paused the world’s rising demand for electricity. The slight drop in demand (-0.1%) was the first fall since 2009, although it was smaller than the impact of the financial crisis. However, already by December, global demand was greater than the same month the previous year.

Wind and solar showed resilient growth despite the pandemic, up by 15% (+314 TWh) in 2020, which is more than the UK’s entire annual electricity production. Wind and solar now supply almost a tenth of global electricity, mirrored across many G20 countries, including India (9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10%), Brazil (11%), the US (12%) and Turkey (12%). Europe is leading the way, with Germany at 33% and the United Kingdom at 29%, giving confidence in how wind and solar can be quickly built and integrated into the electricity system.

The growth in wind and solar helped push coal power to a record fall of 4% (-346 TWh). However, models from the International Energy Agency show that coal power must fall by 14% every year to keep the world on track for 2050 net-zero emissions. As electricity demand growth picks up again, wind and solar will need to significantly accelerate to ensure that coal continues to fall.


China isolated as the world turns away from coal power 

China has successfully increased access to electricity; per capita demand is now above the United Kingdom and Italy. Over half of the increase in demand since 2015 was met by clean sources, but 39% was met with coal. In 2020, China was the only G20 country that saw a large increase in coal generation because electricity demand increased sharply.

The four largest coal-generating countries after China all saw coal power decline in 2020: India (-5%), the United States (-20%), Japan (-1%) and South Korea (-13%). In 2020, China was responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity.


Emissions still not falling after Paris

Despite the record fall in coal in 2020, power sector emissions were still around 2% higher in the pandemic year than in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. Electricity demand rose 11% (+2536 TWh) since 2015, but this outpaced the increase in clean electricity generation (+2107 TWh). As a result, gas-fired electricity rose 11% (+562 TWh) and coal generation fell only 0.8% (-71 TWh).

Dave Jones, Ember’s global lead, said: “Progress is nowhere near fast enough. Despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed. Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”

Dr Muyi Yang, Ember’s senior analyst, said: “Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth. Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.”


Read the report


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