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A cow near one of the last five coal plants in France, in Cordemais, on Sep. 27, 2018. The French government plans to close all coal plants by 2022. Photo: Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images

For the first time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has projected declining coal demand from 2021 to 2022 as well as overall flat consumption through 2023. The IEA also found that, despite recent small increases in both 2017 and 2018, world consumption still likely peaked in 2014.

The big picture: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, OECD countries must eliminate coal by 2030 in order to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now that global coal consumption may have peaked, the question is how fast OECD countries will move from this plateau to absolute declines.

While the IEA is the world’s leading energy forecaster, it also has continually overestimated coal consumption and simultaneously underestimated clean energy growth. The fact that the IEA no longer sees growth for the coal industry will therefore send a powerful signal to the market.

What’s next: Coal plant retirements in the OECD may gather speed given the rapid fall in clean energy prices, which are now lower than coal everywhere in the world except Japan. More importantly, 96% of existing coal plants will be more expensive to run than to replace with clean energy by 2030.

  • This could be a point of no return, after which retirements will accelerate faster than historical averages as utilities realize economic gains from clean energy.

Yes, but: The IEA found pockets of coal-consumption growth in the developed world, particularly South Korea. More significantly, the IEA still forecasts long-term growth in South and Southeast Asia, especially in India, which led the world in increasing consumption by 40 million tons in 2018.

The bottom line: Staving off the worst impacts of climate change will require curbing the growth of the coal industry in the developing world and phasing it out entirely in OECD countries. Peak consumption is significant on its own, but the time it takes to go from that peak to shuttering the last coal plant will prove the most important variable.

Justin Guay directs global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project and advises the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Go deeper

11 mins ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.

Trump threatens to veto Defense spending bill over social media shield

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Tuesday a threat to veto a must-pass end-of-year $740 billion bill defense-spending authorization bill unless Congress repeals a federal law that protects social media sites from legal liability.

Why it matters: Trump's attempt to get Congress to end the tech industry protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the latest escalation in his war on tech giants over what he and some other Republicans perceive as bias against conservatives.

The walls close in on Trump

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

With Bill Barr's "Et tu, Brute!" interview with AP, President Trump is watching the walls close in on his claims of fraud, hoaxes and conspiracies.

Why it matters: Trump and his legal team continue to claim election fraud. But the Republican governors of Arizona and Georgia have certified their elections, a loyalist like Barr has weighed in, and lower-ranking officials have taken potshots.