Dec 17, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Coal-fired power hits record level despite momentum for climate pledges

Global coal consumption by region
Data: International Energy Agency; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Newly released data on global coal demand starkly highlights the chasm between climate pledges and today's trends.

Driving the news: Coal-fired power is at record levels in 2021 and overall worldwide coal demand is set to reach new highs in the coming years, per International Energy Agency analysis.

The big picture: It comes just weeks after the major Glasgow climate summit that featured new multilateral pledges and a consensus goal to "phase down" coal, the most carbon-emitting fuel.

Why it matters: "[A]ll evidence indicates a widening gap between political ambitions and targets on one side and the realities of the current energy system on the other," the report states.

Threat level: IEA sees two "clear implications" from this disconnect.

  • "Climate targets are getting further out of reach, and energy security is at risk because, while investments in fossil fuels are shrinking, funding for clean energy and technologies is not expanding quickly enough."

By the numbers: Coal-fired electricity is climbing 9% in 2021, thanks to rising power demand outpacing the growth of low-carbon sources and high natural gas prices making coal more cost-competitive.

  • Looking at power and industrial uses combined, the 2021 rise is about 6%, with further increases on tap slated to bring record overall demand in 2022-2024 (check out the graphic above).

The intrigue: There are big regional differences underneath the overall global trajectory.

  • After a brief rebound this year from COVID-fueled declines, IEA sees coal demand in the U.S. and European Union falling again through 2024 (the end of this medium-term forecast).
  • But they see continued growth in China, which accounts for over half of all global coal use, and India, another major demand source.

Quick take: The U.S. is hardly immune from the policy inertia that IEA's report highlights.

  • While coal-fired power has been on a long-term decline despite this year's rise, legislation to greatly accelerate the power sector's movement toward renewables remains stalled on Capitol Hill.
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