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Global emissions peaked in 2019 as pandemic hastens energy transition – report

Depressed in 2020 by the worldwide economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions from power, transportation, industry and buildings peaked in 2019 at 31.9 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, according to an Oct. 27 report from BloombergNEF.

After dropping 8.6% in 2020, emissions will again tick upward through 2027, but will remain below 2019's level and then decline roughly 0.7% per year through 2050, the clean energy research firm said in its 2020 New Energy Outlook.

In the global power sector, the COVID-19 crisis "has brought forward a triple peak" of both coal use and emissions, in 2018, and natural gas in 2019, according to the report. The analysis predicts that global oil demand will peak in 2035.

Wind and solar energy, on the other hand, will continue to gather momentum, rising to 56% of global power generation by 2050, up from 9% in 2020, BloombergNEF, or BNEF, added. Over the next 30 years, wind, solar and battery storage together will seize an 80% share of $15.1 trillion to be invested in power capacity, according to the report, which forecasts an additional $14 trillion in power grid outlays to 2050.

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"Our projections for the power system have become even more bullish for renewables than in previous years, based purely on cost dynamics," said Seb Henbest, BNEF's chief economist and lead author of the report, in a news release. The report also highlights the "tremendous opportunity" for direct electrification and green hydrogen to help decarbonize transport, buildings and industry, Henbest said.

Natural gas, fueled by building and industrial demand, is the only fossil fuel forecast to continue growing to 2050 in the report.

Power demand down, for now

The pandemic has taken a 5% bite out of 2020 global power demand, which is not expected to reach precrisis levels until 2022, according to BNEF's forecast.

In a separate Oct. 27 report, CoBank ACB, a U.S. cooperative bank, said it does not expect U.S. electricity demand to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest. Like BNEF, CoBank expects the pandemic, coupled with pressure from investors, to spark more early retirements of coal-fired power plants and hasten renewable energy additions.

"Economic fallout from the pandemic has helped accelerate the investment shift away from potentially stranded fossil fuel resources to a more pronounced wave of renewable development," Teri Viswanath, CoBank's lead economist for power, energy and water, said in a statement.

Ultimately, the world will need much more electricity, according to BNEF. The report said that developing countries and electric vehicles will drive a 60% jump in demand for electricity to 2050.

Despite peaking coal and gas use in the power sector, increasing use of electric vehicles in transportation, and energy efficiency gains, BNEF still sees energy-sector emissions leading to a dangerous rise in temperatures.

"To stay well below two degrees of global temperature rise, we would need to reduce emissions by 6% every year starting now, and to limit the warming to 1.5 degrees C, emissions would have to fall by 10% per year," according to Matthias Kimmel, a BNEF senior analyst and report co-author.