Global carbon dioxide emissions rose to their highest levels last year after a surge in energy demand stoked by a strong economy and extreme weather, according to the world’s energy watchdog.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency said energy demand rose 2.3 per cent last year — its fastest rate since 2010 — and that the growth was met mainly by fossil fuels. That pushed global emissions of carbon dioxide to a record high of 33bn tonnes in 2018, up 1.7 per cent from the previous year.
Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, said the rise in energy demand was “exceptional” and a “surprise for many”, moving the world further away from its climate goals.
“We have seen an extraordinary increase in global energy demand in 2018, growing at its fastest pace this decade,” he said. “Looking at the global economy in 2019, it will be rather a surprise to see the same level of growth as 2018.”
Despite global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the use of fossil fuels grew last year with the demand for coal, oil and natural gas all increasing, according to the IEA.
The growth in emissions last year — 560m tonnes — is equivalent to the entire annual emissions from the aviation sector. It was the second consecutive year of rising emissions, after a period during which CO2 emissions were mostly flat between 2014 and 2016.
China, the US and India had the biggest increases in emissions, while areas such as the EU and the UK saw emissions decline last year.
Unusual weather patterns last year also pushed up energy demand and contributed to growing emissions, as countries that endured particularly hot summers used more air conditioning while harsh winters prompted a greater need for heating.
“It seems like a vicious cycle,” said Mr Birol, pointing out that in India air conditioning had become a big factor in power demand. “Heating and cooling are one of the biggest drivers of energy demand growth.”
While renewable power generation grew last year by about 7 per cent, that was not enough to keep up with the surge in demand.
“In 2018, the growth from wind and solar met only 45 per cent of global electricity demand growth,” said Mr Birol. “So renewable growth is not keeping pace with the electrification of our society.”
Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy accounted for 26 per cent of global electricity generation last year, while coal accounted for about 38 per cent.
The IEA also calculated that coal was the “single largest source of global temperature increase”, responsible for about 0.3C of the 1C of warming that the world has experienced since pre-industrial times.
Coal accounted for a third of the increase in emissions last year, mainly due to new coal power plants in Asia, the report found.
Nuclear energy also grew last year. By the end of 2018, global nuclear power generation had reached the same level as in 2010, before a catastrophic accident at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan triggered a worldwide slowdown in nuclear power.