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
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