One key question in this is if we’re seeing more renewables and falling prices in batteries, wind, and solar, why is climate pollution still rising? One answer is a growing global economy, which increased energy demand by 2.3 per cent in 2018, according to a report from The International Energy Agency (IEA). A contributing factor in this is that more energy was required for additional cooling and heating in areas affected by unusually severe heatwaves and cold snaps. These were at least in part driven by a shifting climate. This all drove increases in generation from natural and coal gas, with both spewing greenhouse gases that warm Mother Earth.
These fossil fuel increases ultimately outpaced improvements in wind and solar generation. Both rose by double digits last year. Even nuclear generation rose, albeit modestly, with a 3.3% increase, largely as a result of Chinese turbines and four Japanese reactors that went back online. Other numbers in the report from the IEA focus on a systemic issue that’s making it more difficult to consistently reduce emissions. From 2000-2018, while a part of global electricity generation from wind and solar increased by seven per cent, nuclear fell by the same percentage. Coal fell by 1% in the same period, and natal gas rose from 18% to 23%.
This means that renewables largely claimed the market share that was given up by another carbon-free power source, as opposed to taking it from fossil fuels. When that’s added to the rising use of natural coal and gas to increase fuel economic growth, it’s easy to understand why the world still isn’t making significant progress in energy emissions, decades since the issue of climate change was made clear. The rise in renewables, in addition to energy efficiency gains and a shift to less climate-polluting natural gas have aided in slowing global emissions. Achieving larger and consistent declines, however, will likely call for far more renewables, more nuclear, and other significant changes to our energy practices and systems.
Nuclear vs natural gas
Nuclear has lower-priced competition in the form of natural gas, which was responsible for close to 45% of increased energy demand in 2018, claims the report. Despite a dislike for nuclear, it offers a key benefit that other clean sources don’t. The electricity that it generates doesn’t fluctuate according to weather conditions or the time of day, so it assists in balancing out intermittent solar and wind generations without a need for vast expense.
The majority of models from the UN’s climate research body require a significant increase in nuclear power. The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario has a plan to achieve a stable climate and universal access to energy, but the world would require an additional 17 gigawatts of nuclear capacity each year by 2040. That would be close to double what we currently have. With the way things stand, the planet’s retiring plants will rid approximately 200 gigawatts by the year 2040. That will make reaching those targets almost impossible unless policymakers and companies either decide to extend the lifetime of the facilities or build more.