Nov 16, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The long road to phasing down coal

Data: BP; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Let's leave to history to see whether the COP26 deal to "phase down" coal instead of "phase out" makes any real-world difference, but what's clear is that any meaningful "phasing" at all is hard.

Why it matters: Coal is the most carbon-intensive fuel. Any pathway to meeting the Paris Agreement goals will require huge reductions in global demand that are nowhere in evidence yet.

The big picture: Global coal consumption fell in 2020 due to the pandemic, but it's rebounding this year amid the recovery.

  • The International Energy Agency's flagship outlook in October projected that under nations' existing policies at the time, global demand doesn't begin falling again for several years.
  • Then it declines — but it's still around 70% of today's levels in 2050. Compare that to IEA's roadmap for reaching net-zero global emissions by midcentury, which requires a 55% decline by 2030.
  • We're talking about long-term projections here so take it all with chunks of salt, but still, that's a big gap.

Yes, but: The United Nations climate summit — and the runup to it —brought a burst of pledges and initiatives that could alter the current trajectory if countries follow through.

  • One of them was a pledge by 45 nations and the EU to phase out coal-fired power in the 2030s in "major" economies and in the 2040s globally. However, it did not include China, India, Japan or the U.S.
  • Still, some other large users did sign-on, and more broadly it was among a suite of overlapping, ad-hoc efforts at the summit that could help speed up the transition away from coal in power and industry.

What they're saying: Nikos Tsafos of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has a helpful look at both the challenges and possibilities around accelerating the shift to alternatives.

  • I won't capture it all here, but this section gets to the challenge side of things in emerging economies, where power demand is rising.
  • "Even if coal is more expensive to operate than competing sources, and even if it is cheaper to build a new wind farm or solar array than it is to run an existing coal plant, it is hard to shut down coal facilities because few countries have sufficient spare capacity in their electricity systems to be able to do so," Tsafos said.

Go deeper: COP26 climate deal calls for historic shift from fossil fuels

Go deeper