COP aims to end coal, but the world is still addicted to ‘dirtiest fuel’
Never in the history of mankind has a ton of coal cost more. Governments and utilities around the world are willing to pay record highs to literally keep the lights on. This is the murderous reality that world leaders face in the high-stakes climate talks in Glasgow this month as hopes fade for a deal ending the world’s dependence on the world. dirtiest fuel.
The burning of coal is the biggest obstacle to achieving the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 ° C. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls it a “deadly addiction”, and COP26 President Alok Sharma has urged leaders to “make coal history”.
There has already been progress – the global pipeline of new coal-fired power plants has shrunk by nearly 70% since 2015. President Xi Jinping announced last month that China would stop building coal-fired power plants abroad, while Germany now wants to end its use of coal by the end of this decade and more than 40 countries have pledged “no new coal”. Renewable energies are growing strongly.
But the dramatic rise in prices in recent weeks has made it increasingly clear that this is far from enough. Humanity remains deeply dependent on coal.
On the one hand, coal continues to largely dominate the electricity generation mix in the world. There are even more new coal-fired power plants under construction than old ones going out, and the International Energy Agency predicts that emissions from the electricity sector will hit a record high in 2022 as the consumption of coal-fired electricity will increase.
To meet the 1.5 ° C target, emissions from coal must decline this decade about twice as fast as pollution from oil and gas, according to the Carbon Brief analysis of global emissions scenarios. For example, in one of dozens of potential ways to reach the target, coal emissions are expected to fall by 79% from 2019 to 2030.
It’s a mammoth challenge, made even more daunting given this year’s growing appetite for coal to generate electricity. A global electricity crisis and a shortage of natural gas have driven up demand for coal, pushing prices to record highs in nominal terms and squeezing supplies.
And while production has been limited as larger mining companies pull out of coal under pressure from investors, the high prices are likely to attract private and smaller players who don’t face the same constraints, which means that there is more coal available to burn.
Like almost every other aspect of global economic history, the demand for coal over the past three decades has been the story of China’s rise to power. As the global industrial base moved east, the demand for cheap, easy-to-build electricity needed to power everything from steel plants to cities shifted.
Since 1990, the demand for coal in the United States has halved, largely because power companies have turned to gas instead. European demand has fallen by almost two-thirds. Yet these gains were easily offset by Chinese growth. Its consumption was roughly comparable to that of the United States at the end of the Cold War, but now stands at 87,638 terajoules, or more than half of total world demand.
It’s not just China. India now burns more coal than Europe and the United States combined, and miners are betting on growing demand over the next decade from countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, though pollution problems and cheaper alternatives threaten to derail these plans.
Nothing highlights the west-to-east coal migration better than the places where power plants are pulled out and built. For decades factories have closed across Europe, phased out by a powerful combination of political climate pressures, falling renewable energy costs and a flood of cheap gas.
The UK, the original poster for the coal-fired Industrial Revolution, went 67 straight days without burning fuel last year. Spain alone closed seven of its 15 coal-fired power plants in 2020. In total, half of the region’s coal-fired power plants have closed or will close by 2030.
This year, the electricity crisis in Europe exposed the vulnerabilities of the system. The UK has been particularly hard hit after calm weather affected wind power supplies, exacerbating the effects of a wider regional gas shortage.
Meanwhile, closures in Europe were easily offset by new construction in Asia. China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam plan to add more than 600 coal-fired power plants. China alone is currently building or planning coal-fired power stations that are equivalent to six times Germany’s total coal-burning capacity.
The 2010s were the decade of renewable energies. Rapid increases in technology, large government subsidies, and falling costs have seen seas of solar panels and forests of wind turbines become commonplace.
Yet despite the huge deployment of renewables, burning coal remains the world’s preferred way to generate electricity, accounting for 35% of all electricity. While the share of renewables has increased from 20% to 29% of the global mix over the past decade, coal has lost only 5 percentage points over the same period.
Coal is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions and the largest source of greenhouse gases in the electricity sector. While global CO2 emissions fell the most on record last year, it was due to a collapse in demand driven by the pandemic, rather than a drastic shift in fossil fuel use. Global emissions are skyrocketing this year as the economy recovers and power cuts reverberate around the world.
(Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has committed $ 500 million to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign to shut down remaining coal-fired power plants in the United States by 2030.)