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Emissions reach record high despite growth in clean energy, IEA says

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The world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy rose yet again to a new high in 2023 despite fossil fuel use falling in the advanced economies of the EU and US, the latest International Energy Agency report shows.

Emissions reached a record 37.4bn tonnes as droughts and rising energy demand pushed up fossil fuel use, a rise of 1.1 per cent, or 410mn tonnes, compared to the year before.

This runs counter to the need for emissions to be cut by almost 45 per cent by 2030 to limit long-term global warming to no more than 1.5C since the pre-industrial era. Already the rise in temperatures is at least 1.1C, and last year was the hottest on record.

Higher emissions from India and China helped offset reductions in the EU and the US, as the developing economies remained heavily reliant on coal to meet energy demand even as they also develop cleaner energy. 

The IEA painted a more positive picture over the longer-term, saying energy-related emissions were in “a structural slowdown” thanks to the growth of clean energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels.  

Column chart of Annual change in CO₂ emisssions (MtCO₂) showing Total global carbon emissions increased in 2023

Overall, emissions growth over the past five years would have been about three times higher without the development of cleaner energy technologies, the IEA said. 

Significantly, economies such as the US and the EU managed to cut energy-related emissions despite economic growth, weakening the historic correlation between the two.

“The clean energy transition is continuing apace and reining in emissions,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, adding that the sector had shown “resilience” through the pandemic and energy crisis. 

The total level of emissions includes those from burning fossil fuels for energy and heat, as well as industrial processes such as cement-making, and flaring from oil and gas.

Line chart of Tonnes, bn showing annual carbon dioxide emissions

The IEA report highlighted the effect of the weather on emissions: droughts, worsened by the El Niño weather pattern that warms the Pacific Ocean, drove a record fall in output from hydropower plants.

Fossil fuel power plants were largely used instead, the IEA said, resulting in about 170mn tonnes of extra carbon dioxide emissions, or about 40 per cent of the total increase last year.

The fall in hydropower output particularly affected India and China, with emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy in China growing by 5.2 per cent.

The country had rapidly developed cleaner energy sources, accounting for about 60 per cent of the new solar and wind energy and electric vehicles developed globally during 2023, the IEA said.  

But that was not enough to cover a 6.1 per cent increase in energy demand in China as its economy grew on the back of sectors including construction.

By contrast, emissions from fossil fuel energy production in the US fell by 4.1 per cent despite its economy growing by 2.5 per cent, as lower gas prices helped it generate more electricity from gas rather than coal. 

At the same time, emissions from energy production in the EU fell by almost 9 per cent despite economic growth of 0.7 per cent, with the IEA attributing the trend to the growth of renewables such as wind power. 

Electricity production from coal and gas in the EU fell by 27 per cent and 15 per cent respectively, the IEA said, noting they were overtaken by wind power for the first time.

“A pandemic, an energy crisis and geopolitical instability all had the potential to derail efforts to build cleaner and more secure energy systems,” said Birol. 

“Instead, we’ve seen the opposite in many economies.” However, he called for greater efforts to help emerging economies invest more in clean energy.

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