The International Energy Agency (IEA) on February 11 announced that global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019, despite the world economy expanding by 2.9%.
Meanwhile, Eurostat, the statistical body of the European Union, earlier in February, published data on the EU’s primary and final energy consumption in 2018.
Are we finally on the road to sustainable growth?
EU primary energy consumption fell 0.71% to 1,376 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2018, while final energy consumption rose by 0.02% to 990 Mtoe.
However, both indicators remain above target for 2020, by 4.9% and 3.2% respectively. By 2020, the EU wants primary energy consumption to be no more than 1,312 Mtoe and final energy consumption to be no higher than 959 Mtoe.
For 2030, the EU is targeting a further 20% reduction from 2020, which means reducing primary and final energy consumption to 1,128 Mtoe and 846 Mtoe respectively.
Final energy consumption is the energy consumed by end users and does not include the energy used by the energy sector itself or distribution and transmission losses.
Reaching such targets in any particular year will be tough and means an intense focus on improving energy efficiency, not least because primary and final energy consumption fluctuate according to multiple factors.
A cold winter will increase heating demand, pushing up primary and final energy consumption significantly from year to year, while a hot summer will raise energy demand for air conditioning.
Population growth tends to increase total energy consumption, but can be mitigated by greater energy efficiency. While the EU’s population has been growing at a relatively slow rate, energy used per person has fallen from 142.9 gigajoules (GJ) in 2009 to 138.7 GJ in 2018, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.
On top of this are structural changes in the way people live. Each EU citizen today on average has more personal electronic devices than a decade ago. Globally, each person uses more building floor area and consumers tend to prefer larger vehicles, all of which raise energy demand, making energy efficiency gains all the more important.
Given the short and long terms factors influencing energy consumption it is perhaps best to look at the overall trend rather than focus on any particular year. Eurostat’s figures show a strong downward trend in both primary and final energy consumption since 2005, but a rise from 2014.
Moreover, in a report released last November, the IEA found that worldwide primary energy intensity rose by just 1.2% in 2018, the slowest rate of improvement since 2010 and the third year in a row in which the rate had declined. To address climate change, the IEA says primary energy intensity needs to rise by an annual rate of 3.0% out to 2030 and beyond.
Another way to look at the problem is to consider the relationship between energy consumption, economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions.
For example, EU GDP rose 2.6% in 2017 and 2.0% in 2018, a period in which primary energy consumption rose much less, by 1.1% and -0.7% respectively.
At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in the EU rose by 1.8% in 2017, but then fell by 2.5% in 2018.
Positive economic growth coupled with falling emissions in 2018 is clearly good news — and the IEA had more in February, announcing that global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined last year at 33 gigatons, despite the world economy expanding by 2.9%.
While there was a broad range of factors contributing to this, the IEA highlighted in particular the increase in renewable energy sources, fuel switching from coal to natural gas and higher nuclear power generation.
Economic growth tends to mean higher energy demand, and thus greenhouse gas emissions, as businesses use more energy to produce more goods and services, so the combination of flat carbon dioxide emissions and a 2.9% increase in GDP suggests a step towards that holy grail of economic and environmental policymakers alike — sustainable growth.
However, while the trend is positive, it has yet to be confirmed as long-term and the rate of change remains too slow. These are welcome snowflakes in a world which needs a snowball effect to address the challenge of climate change.
Reaching the EU’s 2030 targets for primary and final energy consumption will require further efforts in the area of energy efficiency and a more rapid expansion of renewables, a message clearly articulated by bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change, European Commission and IEA.
“We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth.” Fatih Birol, Executive director IEA
As the IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol said on the release of the IEA data: “We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth.”