Even after last year’s 13% decline in global coal capacity to a record low, steeper cuts are needed to keep global heating below 1.5°C, finds a new report by Global Energy Monitor. But the effort to cut coal consumption is being hampered by spiking electricity demand after the pandemic, coupled with supply shocks from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“When you’re trying to balance decarbonization and energy security, everyone knows which one wins: Keeping the lights on,” said Steve Hulton, senior vice president for coal markets at market research company Rystad Energy in Sydney. “That’s what keeps people in power, and stops people from rioting in the streets.”
Although the number of coal-fired plants under development decreased last year, older plants are being taken out of service more slowly, and governments are continuing to approve new development projects. This props up coal’s place in the global energy mix, with overall volume above the level necessary to keep global warming within safe limits, reports the Guardian.
“The coal plant pipeline is shrinking, but there is simply no carbon budget left to be building new coal plants. We need to stop now,” said Global Energy Monitor’s Flora Champenois, adding that the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recommends retiring all coal plants in the developed world by 2030, and the rest of the world soon after.
Despite these stark warnings, Global Energy Monitor finds there are more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants operating in 79 countries, and 34 countries still have plans to develop new ones.
Coal use had been declining before the pandemic, and pledges from several countries offered hope at the time that a phaseout was achievable. China in particular made waves in the international community when it announced an end to financing for overseas coal projects, and its leadership has continued to include coal reductions in developing energy plans.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has promised to make his country the “first great nation” to stop using oil, coal, and gas as energy sources.
But political pledges couldn’t hold back the uptick in coal demand following the lifting of pandemic restrictions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also causing an increase in coal use, and has set off “a domino effect that’s leaving power producers scrambling for supply and pushing prices to record levels,” Bloomberg Green reports.
Analysts say coal is still one of the cheapest fuels, making it critical for stabilizing power supplies and, as one of the highest-polluting fuel sources, a major contributor to global emissions.
On the other end of the supply chain, miners are struggling to meet demand while grappling with international climate policies for phasing out coal.
“To say in the long run there’s no demand for your product, but in the short run, can you please ramp it up—that’s a lot to ask of a supply chain,” said Ethan Zindler, head of Americas research at BloombergNEF.
But while the war in Ukraine has “turbocharged” global coal consumption, it is also spurring action for an energy transition. Western countries feel a growing urgency to become independent from Russia’s oil and gas, which earn the warring nation US$850 million per day from the European Union, says the Washington Post.
“Energy policy is always power policy, is always interest policy, is therefore always security policy,” said Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy and climate minister.
“And if you look back, you almost can’t understand how we could be so blind to overlook that.”
But ongoing efforts to scale and accelerate an energy transition will be too slow to meet immediate demands for more energy. So desperate European governments are turning to citizens to offset energy demand by changing daily habits to “help Ukraine by cutting the EU’s reliance on Russian fuel, and also… reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Maria Pastukhova, a Berlin-based senior policy adviser at E3G, said this plea could have an impact on energy demand as citizens are appalled at Russia’s actions in Ukraine. But the outcome will ultimately depend on governments, she told the Washington Post.