Jul 21, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Coal's global staying power

Coal-fired power plant pipeline in G20 nations
Adapted from BloombergNEF; Chart: Axios Visuals

Environment ministers from the G20 face a stark reality as they gather this week in Italy: Coal is proving quite resilient despite steep declines in some economies.

Why it matters: Burning coal emits more CO2 than any other fuel source.

  • Choose any energy scenario consistent with the Paris Agreement and it will show fast, steep cuts in coal-fired generation are needed.
  • Just Wednesday morning, BloombergNEF released an analysis of various pathways to net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • They all show "unabated" coal — that is, without carbon-trapping tech that has scarcely been deployed — falling 67%-72% by 2030.

Driving the news: New reports show how coal remains a huge share of the global power mix and the scope of new plants, especially in China.

  • That chart above, via a report from BloombergNEF and Bloomberg Philanthropies, shows projects getting built or planned in the G20.
  • The International Energy Agency's latest power sector analysis projects a big rebound from the pandemic, with coal-fired generation potentially hitting an all-time high in 2022.

By the numbers: IEA finds that in China, home to over half the world's coal-fired capacity, net capacity grew by 19 gigawatts last year, with another 90 GW under construction.

  • Coal had a nearly 80% share of India's power mix early this year, per IEA.
  • Many big developed countries are moving away from coal, but it's a slower goodbye than envisioned under various net-zero analyses.
  • In the U.S., coal has been declining for well over a decade, but the Energy Information Administration projects it will be 24% of the power mix this year.
  • In the EU, IEA finds coal's share returned to pre-pandemic levels early this year, though the report says its revival is "likely to be short-lived" as countries implement phase-out plans.

What we're watching: How coal may be addressed at the G20 environment ministers' meetings in Naples tomorrow and Friday.

  • "[They] should agree aggressive emissions cuts by 2030, especially those countries yet to upgrade their national plans. There is no room for coal," Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, tells Axios via email.
  • "Those still using coal need to outline specific plans for exit at home and abroad," adds Kyte, a former World Bank climate official.
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