Fighting Coal to a Draw

Renewables are making progress, but not enough to dent emissions

In April, the International Energy Agency, in Paris, introduced a new index [PDF] that will track the carbon intensity of global energy production. In a result that the IEA calls “grim,” the index reveals that despite the growing deployment of renewables, we are still producing, per joule, virtually as much carbon as we produced two decades ago. Most of this production is due to the growth of coal-fired electricity generation driven by soaring energy demands in Asia. Consequently, in addition to cleaner generation, the IEA is urging stronger efforts in deploying carbon capture and storage technologies and developing more-efficient ­industrial processes.

Slow Renewables

Despite robust growth, renewable energy still accounted for only 19 percent of global electricity generation in 2011. In order to keep global warming within 2 °C, the IEA projects that by 2020, renewables must account for 25 percent of generation. Wind power has seen the most rapid development, going from 31 terawatt-hours in 2000 to 447 TWh in 2011, a 1539 percent growth rate.

Coal is Still King

Although coal is also used for heating and industrial processes, much of global coal demand is due to electricity generation. Between 2000 and 2010, coal-based generation increased 45 percent. The demand for coal is expected to increase to 50 000 TWh by 2017.

Capture Sputters

Large-scale deployment of carbon-capture technology has been slow to develop, with the annual capacity of all projects not exceeding 25 million metric tons of CO2 per year until 2013. However, more projects are currently in the advanced planning stages that represent an additional 27 megatons per year of CO2 capacity. Eight planned capture projects were canceled in 2012.

Factory Settings

Industry around the world has reduced the amount of energy required to add a dollar in value to materials or components, mostly through modernization, but progress has stalled. Despite greatly reducing its industrial energy intensity, large absolute growth in Chinese industry means that by 2010 China was responsible for 28 percent of global industrial energy consumption, up from 14 percent in 2000.

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