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Global CO2 emissions rose 1.7% in 2018, reaching a record high, IEA report says

Global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.7% in 2018, reaching a record high — 33 gigatonnes — as energy consumption expanded at nearly twice the average annual growth rate since 2010, according to new data from the International Energy Agency.

Energy consumption grew 2.3% worldwide in 2018, driven by strong economic growth and higher demand for heating and cooling as winter and summer temperatures in some parts of the world approached or exceeded historical record levels, the IEA said in a report released March 26. The report — "Global Energy & CO2 Status Report" — is the latest addition to a series of government studies and scientific climate assessments that indicate the world is moving in a direction that could result in devastating climate impacts associated with a significant rise in atmospheric temperatures.

Coal-fired power generation continued to be the largest single source of CO2 emissions, with declines in Europe and North America outpaced by increases in China, India and developing countries in Southeast Asia, according to the IEA. Meanwhile, the report found that the U.S. accounted for the largest increase in oil and gas demand worldwide, with gas consumption spiking 10% compared to the previous year — or the equivalent of the United Kingdom's current annual gas consumption.

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China, the U.S. and India collectively accounted for nearly 70% of the rise in energy demand, the IEA said.

While global demand from renewables increased by 4% in 2018, the report's findings suggest policymakers need to take bolder action to curb CO2 and other planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director.

"Despite major growth in renewables, global emissions are still rising, demonstrating once again that more urgent action is needed on all fronts — developing all clean energy solutions, curbing emissions, improving efficiency, and spurring investments and innovation, including in carbon capture, utilization and storage," she said in a statement.

Coal

Global coal demand rose for a second straight year, increasing 0.7% in 2018 even as the role of coal in the world's energy mix continues to decline, the IEA found.

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Coal demand in India grew roughly 5%, driven by strong demand for electricity and steel production as the country posted a 7% economic growth rate. India saw CO2 emissions rise 4.8% in 2018, with growth divided evenly between power and other sectors such as transportation and industry, the IEA said.

In China, coal consumption rose 1% in 2018, with coal-fired power generation increasing 5.3% to meet growth in power demand. CO2 emissions in China grew 2.5% in 2018, the IEA found. Meanwhile, coal's share of the power mix increased in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Coal-fired power generation accounted for a third of the total increase in global CO2 emissions, with most of that coming from a young fleet of coal plants in developing Asia that average 12 years in age — decades short of average lifespans of around 50 years, the IEA noted.

Gas

The ongoing shift from coal to natural gas — combined with colder winter and hotter summer average temperatures — fueled a 10.5% spike in U.S. demand for natural gas, the largest increase since the early 1950s, according to the IEA. As a result, gas-fired power generation's share in the U.S. hit an all-time record high in 2018. Following three years of decline, CO2 emissions in the U.S. also increased 3.1% in 2018, the IEA noted. That figure is in line with a preliminary estimate released in January by the Rhodium Group, a research firm that tied part of the reversal in U.S. CO2 emissions' previously downward trend to a large increase in natural gas-fired power capacity.

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Meanwhile, gas demand in China increased by nearly 18%, the fastest growth rate since the government introduced a five-year plan in 2016 that aims to promote the fuel. Natural gas consumption worldwide grew by an estimated 4.6% in 2018, with the United States and China together accounting for 70% of that growth.

Renewables and nuclear

Solar, hydropower, wind, bioenergy and other renewables were responsible for 45% of the world's increase in electricity generation and renewables now account for nearly 25% of global power output — second only to coal, the IEA said. China accounted for over 40% of the growth in renewable-based electricity generation, followed by Europe with 25%. The U.S. and India combined were responsible for 13% of the growth in renewable generation, according to the IEA.

Nuclear power also grew by 3.3% in 2018, mainly due to the addition of new capacity in China and Japan's move to restart four of its reactors, the IEA said. Worldwide, nuclear generation met 7% of the increase in energy demand.

Under the IEA's "Sustainable Development Scenario," the share of renewables in the power mix needs to rise from one-quarter today to two-thirds in 2040. "Overall, the use of renewables needs to expand much more quickly … to be on track to meet long-term climate goals," the report said.