Energy-Related CO2 Emissions Hit Record High in 2023, Driven by Coal and Drought Effects

By Editor


In 2023, global energy-related CO2 emissions surged by 1.1 percent, marking an increase of 410 million tonnes (Mt) and reaching an unprecedented 37.4 billion tonnes (Gt). This escalation contrasts with the 1.3 percent rise observed in 2022, amounting to an additional 490 Mt. Coal emissions notably contributed to over 65 percent of the spike in emissions for 2023.

One of the significant contributors to the upsurge was the global shortfall in hydropower generation due to droughts, which led to an emissions increase of approximately 170 Mt. Without this factor, emissions from the global electricity sector would have seen a decline throughout 2023.

Between 2019 and 2023, total energy-related emissions experienced a surge of around 900 Mt. However, the deployment of five key clean energy technologies – solar PV, wind, nuclear, heat pumps, and electric cars – since 2019 mitigated this growth, preventing it from being three times larger.

The rise of clean energy deployment has resulted in a structural slowdown in emissions. Over the decade leading up to 2023, global emissions increased at a rate slightly exceeding 0.5 percent per year, marking the slowest pace since the Great Depression.

While the advanced economy GDP grew by 1.7 percent, emissions witnessed a record decline of 4.5 percent in 2023, outside of a recessionary period. This decline, amounting to 520 Mt, brought emissions back to levels last seen fifty years ago. Advanced economy coal demand, largely influenced by the G7 nations, has reverted to levels reminiscent of the early 1900s. The drop in emissions within advanced economies in 2023 can be attributed to a combination of structural and cyclical factors, including robust renewables deployment, coal-to-gas switching in the US, as well as subdued industrial production and milder weather in certain regions.

In contrast, China experienced the largest global increase in emissions, growing by around 565 Mt in 2023. This trend reflects China’s ongoing emissions-intensive economic growth in the post-pandemic era. Despite this, China remained at the forefront of global clean energy additions. Approximately one-third of China’s emissions growth in 2023 can be attributed to cyclical effects, notably a historically poor hydro year. Notably, per capita emissions in China now exceed those of advanced economies by 15 percent.

India, on the other hand, saw strong GDP growth propel emissions up by approximately 190 Mt. However, a weak monsoon season increased electricity demand and reduced hydro production, contributing to around one-quarter of the country’s total emissions increase in 2023. Despite this rise, per capita emissions in India remain notably below the global average.

Despite the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to meet global climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, total energy-related CO2 emissions saw a concerning increase of 1.1 percent in 2023, reaching a staggering 37.4 gigatonnes (Gt). This analysis, based on meticulous region-by-region and fuel-by-fuel assessments by the International Energy Agency (IEA), sheds light on the complex drivers behind this surge, offering critical insights into the state of the ongoing energy transition.

The rise in emissions, equivalent to around 410 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2, occurred at a pace notably slower than the growth of global GDP, which stood at approximately 3 percent in 2023. This trend continues the pattern of CO2 emissions lagging behind economic activity, observed over the past decade. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing a sharp dip in emissions in 2020, by the subsequent year, emissions had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. This growth isn’t solely attributed to the pandemic’s effects but reflects a broader pattern of robust economic growth, with global GDP averaging 3 percent annually over the past decade.

Remarkably, the rate of emissions growth over the past decade has been slower than periods of significant disruption, such as the energy shocks of the 1970s and 1980s or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. This historical context underscores a structural deceleration in global CO2 emissions, even amid continued economic expansion.

Central to this slowdown is the expanding role of clean energy technologies. In 2023, global capacity additions of wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy soared to a record high of nearly 540 gigawatts (GW), marking a remarkable 75 percent increase from 2022 levels. Additionally, global sales of electric vehicles surged to approximately 14 million units, reflecting a 35 percent rise from the previous year. The growing prominence of clean energy is exerting a significant influence on the trajectory of global CO2 emissions.

The acceleration in clean energy deployment since 2019, propelled by COVID-19 stimulus initiatives, has played a pivotal role in curbing emissions growth. Between 2019 and 2023, total energy-related emissions surged by around 900 Mt. However, without the widespread adoption of five key clean energy technologies — solar PV, wind power, nuclear power, heat pumps, and electric cars — emissions growth would have been three times higher, underscoring the critical importance of continued investment in clean energy solutions to mitigate climate change.

Baburajan Kizhakedath

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