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Wind and solar drive a record fall in coal in 2020

But only because the pandemic pressed pause on rising electricity demand

Key findings

1

Pandemic paused electricity demand growth.

Global electricity demand fell slightly (-0.1%) in 2020, the first fall since 2009. But this pause has already ended: by December 2020, electricity demand was already higher than in December 2019 (India +5%, EU +2%, Japan +3%, South Korea +2%, Turkey +3%, US +2%).

3

Wind and solar helped push coal power to a record fall.

Coal fell a record 4% (-346 TWh). This was similar to the rise in wind and solar power of 314 TWh, more than the UK’s entire electricity production. This dwarfed the aggregate changes across global electricity: demand fell 23 TWh, gas and oil fell 12 TWh. A rise in hydro of 94 TWh was mostly countered by a fall of 104 TWh of nuclear. In comparison, coal collapsed almost everywhere, with large falls in the US (-20%), EU (-20%) and even India (-5%).

5

Global power sector emissions were still higher than in 2015 when the Paris climate agreement was adopted.

Electricity demand rose 11% (+2536 TWh) since 2015, but the increase in clean electricity generation (+2107 TWh) didn’t keep up. That led to an increase in overall fossil generation: gas-fired electricity rose 11% (+562 TWh) and coal fell only 0.8% (-71 TWh). As a result, power sector CO2 emissions were around 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015. Fossil-free electricity met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand in China, 57% in India and 37% in Indonesia. Meanwhile in Europe, and especially the US, coal’s fall was caused not only by a rise in clean electricity, but also a rise in gas generation. Of the 10% rise in global gas generation since 2015, half of that was in the United States.

2

Wind and solar showed resilient growth, rising to supply almost a tenth of global electricity.

Wind and solar generation rose robustly in 2020 by 15% (+314 TWh). This meant that wind and solar produced almost a tenth (9.4%) of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015. Many G20 countries now get around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: 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%. Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia still have near-zero.

4

China was the only G20 country with a large increase in coal generation.

China’s coal generation rose by 2% in 2020. That was because electricity demand growth continued to outstrip new clean electricity. China’s electricity demand was 33% higher in 2020 than in 2015, rising by more than all electricity demand in India in 2020. Across those five years, China’s fossil-free generation met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand, so 46% was met from fossil generation. That pushed China’s coal generation 19% higher in five years. China is now responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

1

Pandemic paused electricity demand growth.

Global electricity demand fell slightly (-0.1%) in 2020, the first fall since 2009. But this pause has already ended: by December 2020, electricity demand was already higher than in December 2019 (India +5%, EU +2%, Japan +3%, South Korea +2%, Turkey +3%, US +2%).

2

Wind and solar showed resilient growth, rising to supply almost a tenth of global electricity.

Wind and solar generation rose robustly in 2020 by 15% (+314 TWh). This meant that wind and solar produced almost a tenth (9.4%) of the world’s electricity last year, doubling from 4.6% in 2015. Many G20 countries now get around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: 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%. Indonesia, Russia and Saudi Arabia still have near-zero.

3

Wind and solar helped push coal power to a record fall.

Coal fell a record 4% (-346 TWh). This was similar to the rise in wind and solar power of 314 TWh, more than the UK’s entire electricity production. This dwarfed the aggregate changes across global electricity: demand fell 23 TWh, gas and oil fell 12 TWh. A rise in hydro of 94 TWh was mostly countered by a fall of 104 TWh of nuclear. In comparison, coal collapsed almost everywhere, with large falls in the US (-20%), EU (-20%) and even India (-5%).

4

China was the only G20 country with a large increase in coal generation.

China’s coal generation rose by 2% in 2020. That was because electricity demand growth continued to outstrip new clean electricity. China’s electricity demand was 33% higher in 2020 than in 2015, rising by more than all electricity demand in India in 2020. Across those five years, China’s fossil-free generation met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand, so 46% was met from fossil generation. That pushed China’s coal generation 19% higher in five years. China is now responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity, up from 44% in 2015.

5

Global power sector emissions were still higher than in 2015 when the Paris climate agreement was signed.

Electricity demand rose 11% (+2536 TWh) since 2015, but the increase in clean electricity generation (+2107 TWh) didn’t keep up. That led to an increase in overall fossil generation: gas-fired electricity rose 11% (+562 TWh) and coal fell only 0.8% (-71 TWh). As a result, power sector CO2 emissions were around 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015. Fossil-free electricity met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand in China, 57% in India and 37% in Indonesia. Meanwhile in Europe, and especially the US, coal’s fall was caused not only by a rise in clean electricity, but also a rise in gas generation. Of the 10% rise in global gas generation since 2015, half of that was in the United States.

“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.”

Dave Jones

Global lead, Ember

“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.”

Dr Muyi Yang

Senior analyst, Ember

“India has started its clean electricity transition. India now needs to ramp up wind and solar considerably in the next decade to both replace coal and meet rising electricity demand. India has the opportunity to ensure that coal generation doesn’t see a resurgence after the last two years of coal falling.”

Aditya Lolla

Senior analyst, Ember

Author: Dave Jones

Published: March 29th 2021

Sections:

Trends in 2020

Trends 2015-2020

Looking ahead

Concluding remarks

What happened in 2020?

Electricity generated by new wind and solar helped to force a record fall in global coal power in 2020. However, this was only possible because the pandemic paused the world’s rising demand for electricity. Only China saw a large increase in coal in 2020.

Wind and solar cause record fall in coal as demand growth paused

Wind and solar generation rose by 15% (+315 TWh) in 2020, more than the UK’s entire electricity production. That helped coal to fall a record 4% (-346 TWh). 

This dwarfed all the other changes to electricity in 2020. Nuclear generation fell 4%, while hydro generation rose 3% due to rainy conditions in China, EU-27 and Russia. Gas and oil generation registered a very small fall of 0.2% (-0.9% for gas, +3.5% for other fossil). It was only the second year gas generation fell this century. 

Electricity demand remained almost unchanged year-on-year, falling 0.1%. It was only the second time this century that electricity demand fell; it fell 0.3% in 2009 due to the global recession. 

The increase in global wind and solar generation was the biggest ever in absolute terms, rising a record 315 TWh. However in relative terms it was the smallest on record, rising 15% year-on-year. So although wind and solar generation is steadily rising every year, it’s not yet accelerating in a way needed to reach climate targets.

China isolated as the world turns away from coal power in 2020

In 2020, almost every G20 country saw a rise in wind and solar generation and a fall in coal generation. This contributed to the record fall in global coal generation.

In many countries, wind and solar only partly contributed to the fall in coal. It was also caused by a fall in electricity demand. In the US, electricity demand fell 2.5%, the EU-27 fell 3.5%, India fell 2.3%. This—alongside increases in wind and solar generation—meant that coal generation saw particularly large falls in these countries. If electricity demand grows rapidly in 2021, it is possible that wind and solar growth will not be enough to ensure coal continues to fall.

China was an exception, seeing a 4% increase in electricity demand, which meant it was the only G20 country to show a large increase in coal generation (+1.7%), and despite large growth in wind and solar, clean generation was unable to wholly meet increased demand. Only a third of China’s increase in electricity demand was met from gains in wind and solar generation, and another third from increased hydro, nuclear and bioenergy, leaving the need for increased coal generation.

Progress since Paris

Wind and solar doubled in five years to generate almost a tenth of global electricity in 2020. Although coal’s market share is falling, absolute coal generation is only 0.8% lower than five years ago. Coal is collapsing in OECD countries. But coal still rose in Asia; the clean electricity boom still isn’t keeping up with fast-rising electricity demand. In fact, the world generated more electricity from fossil fuels in 2020 than in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. 

Wind and solar produced almost a tenth of the world’s electricity, doubling in just five years

Wind and solar produced 9.4% of the world’s electricity in 2020. Its share has more than doubled from 4.6% in 2015, the year when the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.

A surprising number of G20 countries now produce around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: India (8.9%), China (9.5%), Japan (10.1%), Brazil (10.6%), the US (11.6%) and Turkey (12.0%). 

Germany and the UK are leading the way, with 33% and 28% respectively. They have become a hotbed of innovation, showing how to successfully integrate huge amounts of intermittent wind and solar into the broader electricity system.

After a slow start in the first half of last decade, South Korea, Argentina and Australia have shown large increases in the last few years. Canada and Italy took a step backwards, with more generation added in the first half of the decade than in the second half.

Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Russia still had near-zero of their electricity from wind and solar.

Wind and solar are taking market share from coal

Across the last five years, wind and solar power’s combined market share increased by 4.8 percentage points (from 4.6% to 9.4%) and coal’s market share fell by 3.9 percentage points (from 37.8% to 33.8%).

The global market share of most other fuel types has not changed significantly.

Coal remains the world’s single largest power source, generating 33.8% of global electricity in 2020.

Most G20 countries see wind and solar replacing coal

Almost every G20 country saw a similar pattern—from the US and EU to China and India. 

Coal’s global share actually fell faster than the rise in wind and solar because gas also replaced coal to some extent in the US and Europe. This meant that while coal fell significantly in those regions, the overall fall in fossil fuel generation is much less impressive. 

There were only three G20 countries where coal’s share didn’t fall;  Turkey, which replaced gas with coal, and Russia and Indonesia, which built near-zero amounts of wind and solar. Saudi Arabia didn’t even register changes, as its electricity mix was unchanged at 100% gas and oil generation.

The minor fall in coal’s market share in France, Argentina and Brazil reflects coal’s small role in the electricity mix in those countries.

The world generated more electricity from fossil fuels in 2020 than five years ago

Electricity demand rose 11% (+2536 TWh) since 2015, but the increase in clean electricity generation (+2107 TWh) didn’t keep up. That led to an increase in overall fossil generation: gas-fired electricity rose 11% (562 TWh) and coal fell only 0.8% (71 TWh). So although global coal generation fell in relative share, it barely fell in absolute terms. As a result, power sector CO2 emissions were around 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015.

The rise in fossil-free generation was led by wind and solar. Wind grew 92% (+762 TWh), solar 232% (+589 TWh), hydro 13% (+490 TWh), nuclear only 5% (+120 TWh) and bioenergy by 28% (+127 TWh).

Electricity demand across Asia rose rapidly, and fossil-free electricity met only 54% of the rise in electricity demand in China, 57% in India, 37% in Indonesia. Hence the overall rise in fossil generation in those regions. China’s electricity demand rose by 1880 TWh (+33%) from 2015 to 2020, which is more than India’s entire electricity demand in 2020.

Meanwhile in Europe, and especially the US, coal’s fall was caused not only by a rise in clean electricity, but also by a rise in gas generation. Of the 10% rise in global gas generation since 2015, half of that was in the United States.

Coal is collapsing in the OECD, but has not yet finished growing in Asia

Many OECD countries are seeing coal collapse. EU-27 coal generation has almost halved since 2015 (-48%), and the US saw a similar fall (-43%). Smaller, more recent falls have happened in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Mexico. 

However, these falls over the last half-decade were almost entirely offset by rises in Indonesia, Turkey, China and India. That meant, even including 2020’s record 4% fall, global coal generation was only 0.8% lower in 2020 than in 2015.

OECD countries saw a combined 23 GW reduction in coal capacity in 2020. This trend means that across the OECD and EU-28, 56% of coal capacity has either been retired since 2010, or is scheduled to retire by 2030. The story in China is very different, where in 2020 alone 9 GW of coal plant retirements were offset by the opening of 39 GW of new coal capacity.

Are we on track for 1.5C?

The world’s transition out of coal power is happening far too slowly to avoid the climate crisis. Coal generation fell a record 4% in the pandemic year of 2020, but that’s still insufficient to meet climate targets. With 77% of the world’s coal electricity in Asia, all eyes are on how quickly it can reduce coal generation. Meanwhile fossil gas dominates elsewhere in the world. In 2020, 61% of the world’s electricity still came from fossil fuels.

Coal generation fell a record 4% in 2020, but that’s still insufficient to meet climate targets

Climate Analytics analysis of IPCC 1.5 degree scenarios show that OECD nations should end coal use entirely by 2030, and all coal-fired power stations must be shut by 2040 at the latest. Those dates were also reiterated by the UN Secretary General in March 2021.

The IEA’s ‘Net-Zero 2050 pathway’ scenario from their 2020 World Energy Outlook is also fairly aligned with the IPCC 1.5 degree scenarios. It shows global unabated coal generation must collapse by around 80% from 2020 to 2030. 

That implies falls of around 14% per year, compared to just a 4% fall in the pandemic year of 2020. This is particularly important because coal-fired electricity generation alone currently contributes around 30% of global CO2 emissions, according to the IEA. Although coal is collapsing in the OECD, it’s not yet collapsing in Asia. The share of the world’s coal generation in China increased from 44% in 2015 to 53% in 2020. For Asia as a whole, it has now risen to 77%. 

The world’s transition out of coal power is happening far too slowly to avoid the climate crisis. What’s more, the IEA even anticipates coal generation will rebound in 2021 as electricity demand picks up again.

Graph showing that coal is falling but not fast enough for 1.5C.

Asia’s future electricity demand growth has huge implications for coal in the next 10 years

China’s rise in electricity demand is unparalleled, rising by 71% over a decade. China’s per capita electricity demand is now higher than the UK and Italy. Although demand in India and Indonesia has risen substantially, it is still only a third of the global per capita rate. South Korea has one of the highest per capita rates in the world, twice that of China’s and ten times India and Indonesia’s per capita levels. 

Fossil-free electricity will meet some of the electricity demand growth, but the extent of this remains to be seen and the risk of falling back on fossil fuels looms large. Asia’s electricity demand growth is perhaps the biggest uncertainty of what will happen to global coal generation in the next 10 years. 

The world still has a long way to go to stop burning fossil fuels for electricity

61% of the world’s electricity still came from fossil fuels in 2020. While the global focus needs to be on quickly phasing out coal generation, gas and oil generation also need to decline rapidly. In 2020, 23% of the world’s electricity still came from gas.  A further 4% was from other fossil fuels, such as oil.

There are five G20 countries that had over three-quarters of their electricity supplied from fossil fuels in 2020: Saudi Arabia (100%), South Africa (89%), Indonesia (83%), Mexico (75%) and Australia (75%). 

Fossil use in the UK and EU-27 electricity has fallen, but fossil fuels still contribute 41% and 37% respectively. Even the historically cleaner electricity systems of France, Brazil and Canada still have some electricity from fossil fuels. 

Concluding remarks

The global electricity transition is on a crash course with climate targets. Clean electricity is not yet being built quickly enough to keep pace with rising electricity demand. Wind and solar have provided the majority of the growth in clean electricity, with hydro and nuclear generation barely increasing. But even as wind and solar have risen to nearly a tenth of world electricity, their growth has slowed in recent years. This slow pace and lack of ambition is locking in reliance on fossil fuels.

2019 and 2020 bucked the trend as electricity demand temporarily slowed, which led to two record drops in coal generation. But even that wasn’t enough to put the world on target. Electricity demand will undoubtedly pick up again soon, especially as the world looks to electrify all the sectors still relying on fossil fuels.

We can’t let “mid-century net-zero targets” distract from the immediate need to focus on a quick transition out of burning coal for electricity.

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Key findings

Trends 2015-2020

Trends in 2020

Comparison with G20

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