Sustainable Energy

BP outlines how quickly global carbon emissions would need to fall to reach net zero by 2050

Key Points
  • In the London-based oil and gas giant's annual Statistical Review of World Energy, the group said some aspects of global energy trends prior to the coronavirus pandemic had been "encouraging."
  • But, BP CEO Bernard Looney said in the report that other aspects of the energy system "continued to give cause for concern."
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the world must cut carbon emissions to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsuis. 
People wearing face masks walk on the Bir-Hakeim Bridge near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on March 27, 2020, on the 11th day of a lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus).
JOEL SAGET | AFP via Getty Images

The chief executive of energy giant BP said Wednesday that to get to net zero by 2050, the world would need to see lockdown-like reductions in carbon emissions every other year for the next 25 years.

In the London-based oil and gas giant's annual Statistical Review of World Energy, the group said some aspects of global energy trends prior to the coronavirus pandemic had been "encouraging."

It noted the continued strong growth of renewable energy, led by wind and solar power, which increased by a record amount to account for over 40% of the growth in primary energy last year.

At the same time, coal consumption fell for the fourth time in six years, with its share in the global energy mix seen at its lowest level for 16 years.

But, BP CEO Bernard Looney said in the report that other aspects of the energy system "continued to give cause for concern."

That's because coal, one of the dirtiest forms of energy production, remains the single largest source of power generation, accounting for more than one-third of global power in 2019.

Comparatively, renewable energy provides only 10% of global power, according to the report, and would need to grow even more strongly over the coming years to decarbonize the power sector.

"More worrying is the trend for carbon emissions," Looney said.

Bernard Looney, chief executive officer of upstream for BP Plc, speaks during the 2019 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, March 13, 2019.
F. Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the world must cut carbon emissions to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsuis. 

Carbon emissions from energy use grew by 0.5% in 2019, according to BP's analysis, less than half the rate the previous year. In 2018, carbon emissions from energy use expanded by 1.8%.

"The hope was that as the one-off factors boosting carbon emissions in 2018 unwound, carbon emissions would fall significantly. That fall did not happen," Looney said, noting the average annual growth in carbon emissions through 2018 and 2019 was greater than its 10-year average.

"The disruption to our everyday lives caused by the lockdowns has provided a glimpse of a cleaner, lower carbon world: air quality in many of the world's most polluted cities has improved; skies have become clearer," he added.

Global carbon emissions

In April, the International Energy Agency said in its flagship Global Energy Review 2020 that the group expected global carbon emissions to decline by 8%, or almost 2.6 gigatons, when compared to levels seen a decade earlier.

To put that forecast into context, this reduction in global carbon emissions would be the largest ever recorded. The IEA said a fall of 2.6 gigatons would be six times larger than the previous record reduction of 0.4 gigatons in 2009 and twice as large as the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II.

BP's Looney said the expected decline in global carbon emissions this year had come at "considerable cost" and as economies restart and our lives return to normal, "there is a risk that these gains will be lost."

"But to get to net zero by 2050, the world requires similar-sized reductions in carbon emissions every other year for the next 25 years," he added.

Looney said such a goal could only be achieved by a "radical shift" in all our behaviors, before adding: "The technologies required to reach net zero exist today — the challenge is to use them at pace and scale, and I remain optimistic that we can make this happen."

BP, which has committed to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner, said earlier this week that it expected the coronavirus crisis would accelerate the transition to a lower carbon economy and energy system.

The group also said it expected to incur non-cash impairment charges and write-offs in the second quarter, estimated to be in an aggregate range of $13 billion to $17.5 billion after tax.

BP had previously announced it would cut 10,000 jobs from the current 70,100 in response to the coronavirus crisis, with the majority of those affected leaving by the end of this year.

A BP company logo is displayed on a fuel pump on the forecourt of a gas station operated by BP Plc in London, U.K.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Late last month, Greenpeace activists staged a socially-distanced protest outside BP's London headquarters on the day of its annual general meeting, with demonstrators holding a banner which stated: "BP: Time to go renewable."

"Mr. Looney says he is committed to 'net-zero' while also promising that BP will be in the oil and gas business for 'a very long time'. He cannot have it both ways," Mel Evans, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said in a statement on May 27.

"The only way BP can address its climate impact is to stop drilling for new oil and gas and switch to renewables. Otherwise, investors can expect more turmoil to come," Evans warned.