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Is the planet on track for lower power sector emissions in 2024?

Early this year, energy analysts at Ember, a clean energy think tank in the United Kingdom, made a bold statement: The world’s power sector has officially passed peak greenhouse gas emissions, meaning emissions should start falling.

Power generation today accounts for over a quarter of planet-warming emissions — around the world, we still burn a good deal of coal. And those emissions have been rising since the industrial revolution. Until, maybe, this year.

Well, we’re halfway through 2024. So it’s time for a progress report.

Here in the United States, power sector emissions have been falling for almost two decades. That’s thanks to a shift away from coal toward energy sources like natural gas and renewables, said Glenn McGrath, operations research analyst at the Energy Information Administration.

“Much more wind and much more solar on the system, and they are the key drivers of the emission reduction,” he said.

Zoom out to the global picture though, and the story is different: Emissions hit a record high last year. Countries like India and China have met rising energy demand in part by building more coal plants. But at the same time, we’ve seen the worldwide rise in renewables getting stronger every year, said Dave Jones, program director of global insight at Ember.

Strong enough, Jones said, to finally start bringing emissions down. “Which would leave last year as the historic peak,” he said.

Cheap solar power has been the fastest-growing electricity source for 17 straight years, Jones said. But renewables aren’t the only ways countries are trying to cut emissions, said Melissa Lott, a professor at Columbia University’s Climate School.

“We’ve seen some countries leaning into nuclear power, others exploring carbon capture,” she said.

Altogether, that means the power sector is moving in the right direction. But she said emissions from this sector can change unexpectedly, thanks to variables like volatile weather.

“It affects wind patterns, it affects the amount of sun we’re getting, it affects the temperature of cooling water for a nuclear power plant, and it also affects the amount of hydropower that we can access,” she said.

In recent years, droughts have caused hydroelectric dams in the U.S. and China to falter.

“And so overall, this is why it is so important that we have a mix of different technologies in the system,” Lott said — to keep the lights on without having to burn more fossil fuels.

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Read More: Is the planet on track for lower power sector emissions in 2024?

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