Apr 27, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Coal has lots of staying power

Illustration of half of an Earth and half of a rounded piece of coal forming a whole circle.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There's a huge gap between the persistence of coal consumption and rapid moves away from the most carbon-heavy fuel needed to keep global climate goals viable.

Driving the news: Fresh data and reporting offer a window into long-term trends, but also recent changes spurred by Russia's war on Ukraine.

The big picture: Global coal-fired power rebounded last year to record levels amid high natural gas prices and economic revival from the pandemic, per the International Energy Agency and data-tracking green group Ember.

  • And now the crisis in Europe is pushing in the same direction, even as EU leaders hope to speed their clean energy transition.
  • "Russia’s invasion...turbocharged the coal market, setting off a domino effect that’s leaving power producers scrambling for supply and pushing prices to record levels," Bloomberg reports.
  • It notes higher coal-fired power use in China — the world's biggest consumer — and other large users including the U.S., India, the European Union, and elsewhere in Asia.
  • AP reports China is "promoting coal-fired power as the ruling Communist Party tries to revive a sluggish economy."

Zoom in: The group Global Energy Monitor (GEM) this week published its latest data on coal-fired power plant development and shutdowns.

  • 2021 saw another 18.2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity added to the world's operating coal plant fleet of roughly 2,100 GW, while shut-downs slowed.
  • Another 176 GW of capacity is under construction, per the report from GEM, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the climate think tank E3G and other groups.
  • China is driving new plant development. But the report also notes some developed nations plan to operate plants "far beyond the deadlines required by climate science."

Threat level: None of this meshes with holding global warming below potentially catastrophic levels."New investments in coal-fired electricity without [carbon capture and storage] are inconsistent with limiting warming to 2°C or 1.5°C," UN-convened scientists said in a major report this month.

Yes, but: GEM sees bright spots in coal phaseout and climate commitments ahead of, and at, last year's UN climate summit.

  • "Only 170 plants (89 GW), or 5% of the operating fleet today, are not covered by a phase-out date or carbon neutrality target," they find.
  • "Still, few of these plants are scheduled to retire on the timelines required by the Paris climate agreement."

Charting coal additions and subtractions

Global coal-fired power plant <br><span style="background:#054f9f; padding:3px 5px;color:white;">commissioning</span> and <span style="background:#ffbc3b; padding:3px 5px;color:white;">retiring</span>
Reproduced from Global Energy Monitor, et al., 2022, "Boom and Bust Coal 2022"; Chart: Axios Visuals

The amount of coal-fired generating capacity brought online last year fell, but again outpaced retirements, new data from Global Energy Monitor shows.

  • Over half the newly added capacity is in China.
  • The report also finds significant amounts in the development and planning stages.
Go deeper