Total world carbon dioxide emissions, 1965-2017. Emissions increased by 1.6 percent in 2017. Over the 1965-2017 period, carbon emissions increased steadily by about 400 million tons per year. Data are from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

By Spencer Dale
13 June 2018

(BP) – At first blush, some of last year’s data might seem a little disappointing. Growth in overall energy demand is up; gains in energy intensity are down. Coal consumption grew for the first time in four years. And, perhaps most striking of all, carbon emissions are up after three consecutive years of little or no growth.

What does this tell us about the energy transition? Is it progressing less rapidly than we thought? Has it gone into reverse?

I would caution against being too alarmed by the recent data. We always knew that some of the exceptional outcomes seen in recent years reflected the impact of short-run cyclical factors, as well as longer-term structural forces shaping the energy transition. Global GDP was growing at below average rates, weighed down by weakness in the energy-intensive industrial sector. Output from some of China’s most energy-intensive sectors was falling in outright terms. Those factors were unlikely to persist.

And sure enough, some of those short-run adjustments came to an end last year. But many of the structural forces shaping the energy transition continued, particularly robust growth in renewables and natural gas. Last year’s energy data is perhaps best seen as a case of “two steps forward, one step back”. […]

Coal

After several years of free-fall, the coal market experienced a mini-revival last year, with both global consumption and production increasing. Global coal consumption rose by 1%, (25 mtoe), with India (4.8%, 18 Mtoe) recording the fastest growth, as demand both inside and outside of the power sector increased. Interestingly, after three years of successive declines, China’s coal consumption (0.5%, 4 Mtoe) also ticked-up. This is despite the substantial coal-to-gas switching in the industrial and residential sector, as increases in power demand in China sucked in additional coal as the balancing fuel.

Global coal consumption and production (percentage contributions to annual growth), 2011-2017, for the U.S. India, and China. Graphic: BP

Coal prices, 2002-2017 (U.S. dollars per ton). Coal prices have fluctuated between $50 and $100 per ton since 2004. There is no sign of a 'collapse' in the demand for coal. Graphic: BP

World production of coal increased more strongly (3.2%, 105 mtoe), driven by notable increases in both Chinese (3.6%, 56 Mtoe) and US (6.9%, 23 Mtoe) output. Interestingly, the increase in US production came despite a further fall in domestic consumption, with US coal producers instead increasing exports to Asia.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the increase in Chinese coal production was a result of the on-going measures to reduce excess capacity within the Chinese coal sector. A central part of this reform process has been managing the need for a Goldilocks-type price for coal. Too hot and it would reduce the pressure for inefficient mines to close or merge, as well as raising general energy costs. Too cold and it would threaten the underlying viability of a sector that still provides around 60% of China’s energy.

The fact that Chinese spot coal prices were above the government’s target price band through much of last year spurred a series of policy measures to increase coal supplies and so ease price pressures. The increase in Chinese coal production of over 3.5% last year, its strongest growth for six years, was a direct result of these actions.

Power sector

The power sector really matters. It’s by far the single biggest market for energy: absorbing over 40% of primary energy last year. And it’s at the leading edge of the energy transition, as renewables grow and the world electrifies. This year’s Statistical Review for the first time includes comprehensive data on the fuel mix within the power sector, aiding our understanding of this key sector.

Global power generation increased by 2.8% in 2017 close to its 10-year average. Almost all that growth came from the developing world. OECD demand edged up slightly, but essentially the decoupling of economic growth and power demand in the OECD seen over the past 10 years continued, with OECD power broadly flat over the past decade.

The increase in global power generation was driven by strong expansion in renewable energy, led by wind (17%, 163 TWh) and solar (35%, 114 TWh), which accounted for almost half of the total growth in power generation, despite accounting for only 8% of total generation. Although wind continued in its role of the bigger, more established, elder cousin, it was solar energy that made all the waves.

In particular, solar capacity increased by nearly 100 GW last year, with China on its own building by over 50 GW – that is roughly equivalent to the generation potential of more than two-and-a-half Hinkley Point nuclear power plants. Global solar generation increased by more than a third last year. Much of this growth continues to be underpinned by policy support. But it has been aided by continuing falls in solar costs, with auction bids of less than 5 cents/KWh – which would have been unthinkable for most projects even just a few years ago – now almost commonplace.

Standing back from the detail of what happened last year, the most striking – and worrying – chart in the whole of this Statistical Review is the trends in the power sector fuel mix over the past 20 years:

Fuel shares in power generation (percentage), 1997-2017. Despite the extraordinary growth in renewables in recent years, and the huge policy efforts to encourage a shift away from coal into cleaner, lower carbon fuels, there has been almost no improvement in the power sector fuel mix over the past 20 years. Graphic: BP

Striking: because despite the extraordinary growth in renewables in recent years, and the huge policy efforts to encourage a shift away from coal into cleaner, lower carbon fuels, there has been almost no improvement in the power sector fuel mix over the past 20 years. The share of coal in the power sector in 1998 was 38% – exactly the same as in 2017 – with the slight edging down in recent years simply reversing the drift up in the early 2000s associated with China’s rapid expansion. The share of non-fossil in 2017 is actually a little lower than it was 20 years ago, as the growth of renewables hasn’t offset the declining share of nuclear. I had no idea that so little progress had been made until I looked at these data.

Worrying: because the power sector is the single most important source of carbon emissions from energy consumption, accounting for over a third of those emissions in 2017. To have any chance of getting on a path consistent with meeting the Paris climate goals there will need to be significant improvements in the power sector. But this is one area where at the global level we haven’t even taken one step forward, we have stood still: perfectly still for the past 20 years. This chart should serve as a wake-up call for all of us.

Carbon emissions from energy consumption

The backward step in last year’s data is most stark in carbon emissions from energy consumption, which are estimated to have increased by 1.6% in 2017. That follows three consecutive years of little or no growth in carbon emissions. So, on the face of it, a pretty big backward step. [Graphing the BP data shows that over the 1965-2017 period, carbon emissions increased steadily by about 400 million tons per year. There is no sign of an inflection point. Data here: Global CO2 Emissions 1965-2017 BP.xlsx. –Des]

The factors driving the pick-up in carbon emissions are of course the same factors that we have just been discussing. Global GDP growth picked up to above trend rates. Much of that growth was driven by industrial activity, which is more energy hungry, causing gains in energy intensity to slow. And the turnaround in coal consumption, from the substantial falls seen in the previous three years to a small rise last year, meant the improvement in carbon intensity was more muted. How worried should we be?

Last year when we discussed the exceptional performance seen over the previous three years, I suggested that some of that improvement was likely to be structural and would persist, but that the degree of improvement was probably exaggerated by several cyclical factors, particularly in China. Given that, as those short-run factors unwind – like they have done this year – it’s not surprising that carbon emissions increased to some extent.

But the extent of that pick-up has probably also been exaggerated by some short-run factors working in the opposite direction. The unusually strong economic and industrial growth in the OECD and the extent of the bounce back in power demand in China, which sucked in coal as the balancing fuel.

My guess is that some of the deterioration in 2017 relative to the previous three years will persist, but not all of it. So I’m a bit worried, but not overly so. Personally, I am more worried by the lack of progress in the power sector over the past 20 years, than by the pickup in carbon emissions last year. [more]

Analysis – Spencer Dale, group chief economist

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