Gas bridge 'next to useless'; coal reversal urgent

Climate Action Tracker's latest has the world on track for 3.7-degree warming by 2100, removing coal-power by 2050 only puts it at 3.2 degrees, while replacing coal with gas is set to have minimal benefit.

This is the executive summary of the latest update by Climate Action Tracker – a joint publication from EcoFys, Climate Analytics and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

– Limiting warming below 2 degrees requires rapid reductions of all greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial use.

– Fossil fuel and industrial CO2 emissions need to be reduced to close to zero by 2050 to hold warming below 2 degrees with a high probability (85 per cent or more). 

– The electricity sector produces over 40 per cent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Coal produces over 70 per cent CO2 of emissions from the electricity sector, although it produces only around 40 per cent of the total electricity generation.

– The electricity sector can and needs to be decarbonised more rapidly than other sectors, however CO2 emissions in this sector continue to increase rapidly, with coal use one of the main drivers. 

– The International Energy Agency’s latest projections (WEO 2013) with current policies estimate that CO2 emissions from coal use in the electricity sector will likely increase by close to 20 per cent by 2020 and 35 per cent by 2030. Under current policies, electricity production is expected to increase significantly and coal electricity production is likely to remain stable at about 40 per cent of electricity generation from now until 2035. 

– Under current policies warming is projected to be around 3.7 degrees by 2100. Completely removing coal from the electricity sector by 2050 would bring this back to around 3.2 degrees warming. In other words, phasing out coal emissions from the power sector alone would reduce warming by about half a degree and achieve 25 per cent of the task of reducing warming from 3.7 degrees under current policies to below 2 degrees. 

– Replacing coal with gas, as proposed by some, is clearly not an option – it would only reduce warming by about 0.1 degrees after consideration of the effect of reducing sulphur emissions, of which about half are co-emitted by coal plants and would be phased-out along with CO2, irrespective of coal being replaced by gas or renewables.

– In terms of a carbon budget approach, in order to have a high probability of limiting warming below 2 degrees, a budget of less than 1000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide remains  after 2011. Under the current CAT policies scenario, as assumed here, 4900 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide will be released to the atmosphere by 2100. Current policies in place around the world are projected to exceed the carbon dioxide budget by 3900 GtCO2 by 2100.

– Phasing out only coal emissions from the power sector by 2050 would reduce this exceedance by more than 1400 GtCO2, or 35 per cent.

– The reduction in warming projected by 2100 achieved with a switch from coal to gas is only 25-45 per cent of what is obtained with a switch to renewables. 

– A strong political signal is needed now that the electric power sector needs to be de-carbonised by 2050 and emissions from coal use need to be phased out rapidly. It is clear that while a rapid coal phase-out is just one part of the mix of policy measures needed to limit warming below 2 degrees, it is one of the most essential first steps given the momentum towards increasing coal investment in the industry and the real and escalating danger of a lock-in of new carbon-intensive energy sector infrastructure.

For the full Climate Action Tracker report, click here