While governments fixate on cutting emissions from the electricity sector, the larger problem of cutting emissions from the non-electricity sector is generally ignored. In this post I present data from the G20 countries, which between them consume 80% of the world’s energy, summarizing the present situation. The results show that the G20 countries obtain only 41.5% of their total energy from electricity and the remaining 58.5% dominantly from oil, coal and gas consumed in the non-electric sector (transportation, industrial processes, heating etc). So even if they eventually succeed in obtaining all their electricity from low-carbon sources they would still be getting more than half their energy from high-carbon sources if no progress is made in decarbonizing their non-electric sectors.
• The G20 membership roll actually includes only 19 countries. The twentieth “country” is the European Union, four members of which (France, Germany, Italy and the UK) are G20 voting members. When we add the remaining 24 EU member states we find that the G20 actually embraces 19+24=43 countries. Adding the data from the extra 24 countries would have involved a lot of unprofitable work and including the EU data would have caused double-dipping in the case of France, Germany, Italy and the UK. So to round the total back up to 20 I added Spain, which has a seat in G20 conferences but no vote, reportedly for political reasons.
• The data used are entirely from the 2016 BP Statistical Review, which while it may not be the best source of data in every case is complete between 1985 and 2015, coherent and easy to work with.
• No allowance is made for electricity or energy imports/exports or for “carbon leakage”. Energy consumed in the non-electric sector is assumed not to include any significant contribution from low-carbon sources.
• The percentage of electricity/energy from low-carbon sources is the best measure of progress in cutting emissions. The percentage of “renewables” in a country’s generation mix ignores nuclear and therefore does not give representative results.
• All values are given as million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Where necessary terawatt-hours have been converted to Mtoe by dividing by 4.42, which is the factor used by BP for all generation sources based on an assumed thermal conversion efficiency of 38%.
The Electricity Sector:
Figure 1 plots electricity consumption in the G20 countries as a percentage of total world electricity consumption. Despite all the upheavals over the last 30 years the G20 countries have consistently consumed between 75% and 79% of the world’s electricity. There has been no significant change in the percentage since 1995:
Figure 1: G20 electricity generation as a percentage of world electricity generation.
Electricity generation in the G20 countries in 2015 is summarized in Figure 2. There is an enormous range, with China generating forty times as much as Argentina (and seventeen times as much as the UK):
Figure 2: Total electricity generation, G20 countries, 2015
Of greater interest from the standpoint of emissions, however, is what percentage of its electricity each country generates from low-carbon sources, in which I include hydro, nuclear and “renewables” (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, geothermal etc.) Figure 3 ranks the results for 2015:
Figure 3: Electricity generation by source as percent of total electricity generation. G20 countries, 2015. Hydro, nuclear and wind, solar etc are the low-carbon sources. Thermal generation is dominantly coal and gas.
France, with 92.5% of its electricity coming from low-carbon sources – dominantly nuclear – tops the list and Saudi Arabia brings up the rear with 0% when rounded off to the nearest 0.1 Mtoe. Japan has sunk down close to the bottom following the post-Fukushima nuclear shutdown. The UK occupies a respectable fifth place.
Figure 3 also tells us which countries can reduce their emissions the most by replacing more of their existing thermal electricity generation with low-carbon electricity generation. China and the US, the world’s two largest emitters, can clearly make progress by doing this. France, however, has about reached the limit, with Canada and Brazil not far behind. Yet having almost completely decarbonized its electricity sector France now plans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting its nuclear generation from 75% to 50% of total generation by 2025.
Figure 4 now shows the rankings when only wind,solar,biomass etc, the renewable sources that most G20 countries plan to replace thermal generation with and which are commonly used to measure “progress” towards this goal, are plotted. France and Canada fall to midpack and the top four positions are occupied by Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK, all of which generate at least three times as much of their electricity from renewables as any other G20 country except Brazil (whose generation comes dominantly from biomass, which is only questionably a low-carbon source):
Figure 4: Low-carbon electricity generated by “renewables” (wind, solar, biomass etc.) as percent of total generation, G20 countries, 2015.
It seems that large-scale development of wind, solar and other renewable source is an approach that has been adopted only by the richer European countries.
Another question that arises here is how much progress the G20 countries have made towards decarbonizing their electricity sectors since 1985, when the BP data begin. Figure 5 shows that the answer is “none”. The low carbon generation percentage in the 1985 G20 generation mix was 26.8% and in 1995 it peaked at 28.8%. But since then it has been mostly downhill, with a percentage of 26.5% – 0.3% lower than the 1985 value – in 2015. As illustrated in Figure 5 this is mostly a result of the replacement of low-carbon nuclear with low-carbon renewables like wind and solar, which of course does nothing to reduce emissions:
Figure 5: Low-carbon electricity generation as a percent of total electricity generation, G20 countries, 1985-2015
As noted earlier electricity in 2015 supplied only 41.5% of the total energy consumption of the G20 countries, which has also stayed remarkably stable at around 80% of total world energy consumption for the last 20 years (Figure 6):
Figure 6: G20 energy generation as a percentage of world energy generation, 1985-2015
As shown in Figure 7, however, only two countries – France and Japan – got more than half of their total energy from electricity in 2015. (The G20 average was 41.5%):
Figure 7: Percent of total energy obtained from electricity, G20 countries, 2015
And Figure 8 shows the impacts on 2015 low-carbon generation when expressed as a percentage of total energy consumption rather than electricity generation (compare with Figure 3):
Figure 8: Electricity generation by source as percent of total energy consumption, G20 countries, 2015. Hydro, nuclear and wind, solar etc are the low-carbon sources. Thermal generation is dominantly coal and gas consumed in the electricity sector and oil, coal and gas consumed in the non-electricity sectors.
Thanks to its abundant nuclear, electric home heating and electrified rail system only France got half of its total energy consumption from low-carbon electricity in 2015. Canada and Brazil got slightly more than a third, Spain a quarter and everyone else a fifth or less. Basing estimates of emissions reduction progress on the percentage of total electricity generation from low-carbon sources clearly gives misleading results. When we base them on total energy consumption the picture is less encouraging, as illustrated in Figure 9 (compare with Figure 5):
Figure 9: Low-carbon electricity generation as a percent of total energy consumption, G20 countries, 1985-2015
In this case there is an overall increasing trend in low-carbon energy (from 11.2% in 1985 to 14.4% in 2015, almost all caused by growth in wind, solar biomass etc.) but at this rate of growth total decarbonization of world energy will not be achieved until 2250 or thereabouts. In addition, the values are only about half those obtained in Figure 5. Basing estimates on electricity data alone therefore results in roughly a factor-of-two overestimate of progress towards decarbonization of world energy.
And how do we rank the progress of different countries? One way if doing it is to measure the change in the country’s percentage of low-carbon total energy generation over a fixed period, and I chose the ten-year period between 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol came into force, and 2015. Choosing a different period will of course give different results, but here is what I got:
Figure 10: G20 country ranking based on 1995-2015 change in low-carbon total energy generation as a percent of total energy consumption.
Three countries have made over twice as much progress as anyone else in the G20 – Italy, Spain and the UK. And with Germany coming fifth the EU can indeed lay claim to being the world leader in renewable energy, although what good this has done the EU is questionable.
A somewhat surprising outcome is that China comes fourth, although this may be as much a result of cutbacks in coal as of increases in low-carbon generation. Three other countries that have come under fire for laggard behavior – Australia, Canada and the US – have also significantly increased their low-carbon percentages. At the bottom of the list are Brazil and Japan. I’m not sure what caused Brazil’s poor performance, but Japan’s cellar-dweller status is entirely a result of the post-Fukushima nuclear shutdown. It stands as a lesson to other countries who are contemplating nuclear phaseouts.
Finally, Figure 11 plots annual low-carbon generation percentages for all of the G20 countries except Saudi Arabia, which to all intents and purposes has no low-carbon generation, since 1985. Readers who prefer an alternative approach to ranking country performance are at liberty to choose different periods and report back.
Figure 11: Annual low-carbon electricity generation as percent of total energy consumption, individual G20 countries, 1985-2015.
As noted in the introduction governments fixate on reducing emissions in the electricity sector and generally ignore the larger problem of how to reduce them in the non-electricity sector. One reason for this is that it’s comparatively easy to legislate changes in the electricity sector but far more difficult if not impossible to do so in the non-electricity sector. (Green NGOs also fixate on electricity, which is why we get bombarded with reports of a new solar generation record in Germany or a new wind generation record in Scotland etc. etc.)
Another reason for concentrating on the electricity sector is that the generation technologies needed to reduce emissions (nuclear, hydro, wind, solar) already exist. But the same cannot be said of the non-electricity sector, where the needed technologies consist of such things as hydrogen from electrolysis and methane from biogas, which have yet to be commercially proven, economic large-scale energy storage, which does not and may never exist, and a potpourri of speculative measures such as smart meters, smart appliances, smart grids, the “internet of things”, EVs charging from and discharging back into the grid, insulation upgrades and “demand response”, all of which will require wholehearted participation from a public which may not be willing to participate wholeheartedly.
But the bottom line is that before we can plan for a world that runs on 100% low-carbon energy we must recognize the scale of the problem, which involves total energy, not just electricity. The scale of the problem in the G20 countries is displayed in Figure 12, which reproduces Figure 9 in a different form:
Figure 12: Figure 9 with Y-scale expanded to 100% and thermal generation included, illustrating the magnitude of the problem the G20 countries still face in decarbonizing their energy sectors.
The requirement is ultimately to replace the red-shaded bars with shades of dark blue, light blue or green – presumably dominantly light blue because nuclear is presently the only practicable solution.