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article imageHow the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling the end of fossil fuels

By Karen Graham     Feb 13, 2021 in Environment
COVID-19 has not only caused a temporary drop in global CO2 emissions, it has also reduced the share of power generated by burning coal - a trend that could in fact outlast the pandemic.
This is the conclusion reached by a team of economists based in Potsdam and Berlin who looked at COVID-19's impact on the energy system and demand for electricity. The findings were published in the online journal Nature Climate Change.
The research shows that while the coronavirus pandemic has taken a terrible toll on people's lives and the global economy, the environmental result has been a decrease in CO2 emissions. The pandemic has led to a decrease in the carbon intensity of power generation as coal generation has been sharply decreased.
"Coal has been hit harder by the Corona crisis than other power sources -- and the reason is simple," explains lead author Christoph Bertram from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). "If demand for electricity drops, coal plants are usually switched off first. This is because the process of burning fuels constantly runs up costs."
"The plant operators have to pay for every single ton of coal. In contrast, renewable power sources such as wind and solar plants, once built, have significantly lower running costs -- and keep on operating even if the demand is reduced," he added, reports Science Daily.
China burns about half the coal used globally each year
China burns about half the coal used globally each year
GREG BAKER, AFP/File
This resulted in fossil fuels being squeezed out of the global electricity generation mix in 2020 and CO2 emissions from the power sector decreased about 7.0 percent. Looking specifically at India, the United States, and European countries, monthly electricity demand declined by close to 20 percent, compared to 2019, and monthly CO2 emissions declined an astounding 50 percent.
In an IEA report on global energy, entitled Coal 2020, the IES says that based on the assumption of a global economic recovery in 2021, there could be a rebound in global coal demand of 2.6 percent - led by China, India and Southeast Asia. However, by 2025, global coal demand is forecast to flatten out at around 7.4 billion tons.
"Due to the ongoing crisis, we expect that 2021 electricity demand will be at about 2019's levels, which, given ongoing investments into low-carbon generation means lower fossil generation than in that year," says co-author Gunnar Luderer from PIK.
"As long as this clean electricity generation growth exceeds increases in electricity demand, CO2 emissions from the power sector will decline. Only if we saw unusually high demand for electricity along with surprisingly few additions of renewable power plants from 2022-2024 and beyond, fossil fuel generation would rebound to pre-pandemic levels."
You could say the combination of a global crisis, along with less demand for coal, has put political leaders in a unique position: "Along with additional policies such as eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing investments in wind and solar power, it is now easier than ever before to put an end to high-carbon electricity," says co-author Ottmar Edenhofer, Director of both PIK and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.
More about covid19 pandemic, CO2 Emissions, electricity demand, coal generation, Fossil fuels
 
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