Global energy emissions flatlined for the first time in 2019, says IEA

Emissions remained unchanged even as global economic growth expanded by 2.9 per cent

A view of the cooling towers of the Drax coal-fired power station near Selby, northern England on September 25, 2015. Energy company Drax has abandoned a 1 billion GBP installation of carbon capture technology to cut emissions, citing  the UK government's reduction of subsidies for renewable energy. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP)

Global emissions relating to energy flatlined for the first time as economies continue to make the switch from polluting fuels to cleaner power generation, according to the International Energy Agency.

Emissions for 2019 remained unchanged at 33 gigatonnes even as the world economy expanded by 2.9 per cent. This is largely due to declining emissions from power generation in developed economies, which have gradually transitioned from coal to natural gas for their energy needs. Other factors such as milder weather as well as slower economic growth in emerging economies also played a role in restraining emissions.

“This welcome halt in emissions growth is grounds for optimism that we can tackle the climate challenge this decade,” said the IEA's executive director Fatih Birol.

“It is evidence that clean energy transitions are underway – and it’s also a signal that we have the opportunity to meaningfully move the needle on emissions through more ambitious policies and investments," he added.

The US, which under President Donald Trump walked away from the Paris climate agreement in 2017, recorded the largest emissions decline on a country basis, with a fall of 140 million tonnes, the equivalent of a 2.9 per cent decline, according to the IEA. Emissions in the world's largest oil producing country are down by almost 1 gigatonne from their peak in 2000.

Emissions in the EU also declined by 160 million tonnes or 5 per cent, largely driven by the switch to cleaner sources in the power sector. Japan's emissions also declined by 4 per cent or 45 million tonnes, the fastest pace since 2009. Emissions from the power sector in advanced economies were close to the levels last seen in the late 1980s, the IEA noted, when demand for electricity was less than a third of today's levels.

The IEA's numbers on lower emissions from the energy sector come at a time of increasing backlash against fossil fuel investment. Climate change activism spearheaded by activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has led to the public increasingly disapproving of investments in hydrocarbon businesses and activities across Europe.

Earlier this year, Britain said it generated more power from renewable sources than fossil fuels for the first time since the industrial revolution, following the lead of other European countries such as Germany in outgrowing the need for hydrocarbons.

The UK generated 48.5 per cent of its energy from a mix of wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower in 2019, with fossil fuels accounting for 43 per cent, according to the country's National Grid. Biomass and energy from waste accounted for the remaining 8.5 per cent, data showed.