Carbon emissions fall as electricity producers move away from coal

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Carbon emissions from the global electricity system fell by 2% last year, the biggest drop in almost 30 years, as countries began to turn their backs on coal-fired power plants.

A new report on the world’s electricity generation revealed the steepest cut in carbon emissions since 1990 as the US and the EU turned to cleaner energy sources.

Overall, power from coal plants fell by 3% last year, even as China’s reliance on coal plants climbed for another year to make up half the world’s coal generation for the first time.

Coal generation in the US and Europe has halved since 2007, and last year collapsed by almost a quarter in the EU and by 16% in the US.

The report from climate thinktank Ember, formerly Sandbag, warned that the dent in the world’s coal-fired electricity generation relied on many one-off factors, including milder winters across many countries.

“Progress is being made on reducing coal generation, but nothing like with the urgency needed to limit climate change,” the report said.

Timeline Half a century of dither and denial – a climate crisis timeline
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Fossil fuel companies have been aware of their impact on the planet since at least the 1950s

1959

The physicist Edward Teller tells the American Petroleum Institute (API) a 10% increase in CO2 will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. “I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe.”

1965

Lyndon Johnson’s President’s Science Advisory Committee states that “pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air”, with effects that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Summarising the findings, the head of the API warned the industry: “Time is running out.”

1970

Shell and BP begin funding scientific research in Britain this decade to examine climate impacts from greenhouse gases.

1977

A recently filed lawsuit claims Exxon scientists told management in 1977 there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases.

1981

An internal Exxon memo warns “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions from the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population)”.

1988

The Nasa scientist James Hansen testifies to the US Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”. In the US presidential campaign, George Bush Sr says: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect … As president, I intend to do something about it.”

2 January 1988

A confidential report prepared for Shell’s environmental conservation committee finds CO2 could raise temperatures by 1C to 2C over the next 40 years with changes that may be “the greatest in recorded history”. It urges rapid action by the energy industry. “By the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation,” it states.

1989

Exxon, Shell, BP and other fossil fuel companies establish the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group that challenges the science on global warming and delays action to reduce emissions.

1990

Exxon funds two researchers, Dr Fred Seitz and Dr Fred Singer, who dispute the mainstream consensus on climate science. Seitz and Singer were previously paid by the tobacco industry and questioned the hazards of smoking. Singer, who has denied being on the payroll of the tobacco or energy industry, has said his financial relationships do not influence his research.

1991

Shell’s public information film Climate of Concern acknowledges there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation”.

1992

At the Rio Earth summit, countries sign up to the world’s first international agreement to stabilise greenhouse gases and prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system. This establishes the UN framework convention on climate change. Bush Sr says: “The US fully intends to be the pre-eminent world leader in protecting the global environment.”

1997

Two month’s before the Kyoto climate conference, Mobil (later merged with Exxon) takes out an ad in The New York Times titled Reset the Alarm, which says: “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”

1998

The US refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocol after intense opposition from oil companies and the GCC.

2009

The US senator Jim Inhofe, whose main donors are in the oil and gas industry, leads the “Climategate” misinformation attack on scientists on the opening day of the crucial UN climate conference in Copenhagen, which ends in disarray.

1 January 2013

A study by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, reveals 90 companies are responsible for producing two-thirds of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.

1 January 2016

The API removes a claim on its website that the human contribution to climate change is “uncertain”, after an outcry.

1 January 2017

Exxon, Chevron and BP each donate at least $500,000 for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

2019

Mohammed Barkindo, secretary general of Opec, which represents Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Iran and several other oil states, says climate campaigners are the biggest threat to the industry and claims they are misleading the public with unscientific warnings about global warming.

Jonathan Watts

Dave Jones, the lead author of the report, said governments must dramatically accelerate the electricity transition so that global coal generation collapses throughout the 2020s.

“To switch from coal into gas is just swapping one fossil fuel for another. The cheapest and quickest way to end coal generation is through a rapid rollout of wind and solar,” he said.

“But without concerted policymaker efforts to boost wind and solar, we will fail to meet climate targets. China’s growth in coal, and to some extent gas, is alarming but the answers are all there.”

The EU has made the fastest progress towards replacing coal with wind and solar power, while the US has increased its reliance on gas following its shale boom in recent years.

The report revealed that renewable wind and solar power rose by 15% in 2019 to make up 8% of the world’s electricity.

In the EU, wind and solar power made up almost a fifth of the electricity generated last year, ahead of the US which relied on these renewable sources for 11% of its electricity. In China and India, renewable energy made up 8% and 9% of the electricity system, respectively.

To meet the Paris climate goals, the world needs to record a compound growth rate of 15% for wind and solar generation every year – which will require “a colossal effort”, the report warned.

The electricity generation report was published as a separate piece of research claimed that 38 out of 75 of the world’s largest asset managers are stalling on taking action on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

The latest ranking by Asset Owners Disclosure Project, a scheme managed by the investment campaign group ShareAction, found that the 38 asset managers have weak or nonexistent policy commitments and fail to account for their real-world impacts across their mainstream assets.

The survey also claimed that the investment managers often lack appropriate engagement and escalation processes on climate change, human rights and biodiversity.

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Scores were based on a survey of activities in responsible investment governance, climate change, human rights, and biodiversity and ranged between AAA to E. Not a single asset manager was granted an AAA or AA rating, the top two scores available.

Felix Nagrawala, ShareAction analyst, said: While many in the industry are eager to promote their ESG credentials, our analysis clearly indicates that few of the world’s largest asset managers can lay claim to having a truly sustainable approach across all their investments.”

ShareAction said the world’s six largest asset managers – including BlackRock (rated D), State Street (D) and Vanguard (E) – were among the worst performers.

Vanguard said it was committed to companies making “appropriate disclosures on governance, strategy and performance on relevant ESG risks”. BlackRock and State Street did not respond to a request for comment.

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