The world still relies on coal-fired power

Global reliance on coal has yet to put the brakes on. In China, the largest consumer, coal-fired power generation is now much higher than in the past five years. Demand for electricity has ballooned as the economy recovers from the New Crown epidemic, compounded by a scorching summer. Europe is also facing gas supply concerns due to the Ukraine crisis, and there is a defiant trend to return to coal. Overall, coal power is being added faster than it is being phased out, and decarbonization goals are becoming blurred.

China is responsible for 30% of global CO2 emissions and relies on coal for more than half of its power sources. China’s average daily coal-fired power generation in July was 14.2 percent higher than a year earlier, according to data from French satellite data firm Kayrros. This is a projection based on carbon dioxide observed from space.

In June 1 year ago, Shanghai lifted its blockade. In early 2023 China switched its anti-epidemic measures. Electricity demand is on the rise due to a phase of economic normalization. This summer was characterized by unusually hot weather. Air conditioning was essential in Beijing, where temperatures reached an observed all-time high of 41.1 degrees Celsius in June, a record high.

China is not alone in its lack of progress on decarbonization. A July report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed that in 2022, coal demand in India, the second-largest consumer, grew by 8 percent. Indonesia grew by 36 percent to become the world’s fifth-largest consumer. Overall global demand is also expected to hit a record high in 2023.

Coal is low-cost and easy to procure on a consistent basis. Emerging countries, not to mention developed countries, also rely on coal in extraordinary times. Germany, the flag bearer of decarbonization, is no exception. The crisis in Ukraine led to the disruption of Russian gas supplies, and Germany’s Minister of Economy and Climate Protection, Habeck, deemed the situation “serious” and increased coal-fired power generation. France has also begun to restart.

In Japan, where coal accounts for around 30% of power generation, the nuclear power plant accident in 2011 increased reliance on coal by around 5 percentage points. There are no immediate prospects for cuts.

According to the US research group Global Energy Monitor, new installations of coal-fired power globally are outpacing phase-outs in terms of power output. Most of the new installations are in Asia, including Japan, and in Europe, in Poland and Turkey. The phase-out rate in China, which accounts for 50% of new installations, has slowed significantly.

The relatively high GHG emissions from coal power will not change, even after taking into account the efficiency gains from new installations. Failure to move away from reliance on coal power may soon come at a cost. The Paris Agreement, the international framework for combating global warming, sets the goal of limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial revolution. If this level is exceeded, risks such as high temperatures and heavy rainfall will skyrocket.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its March report again estimated that there are 400 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions left to be allowed to achieve the 1.5 degree Celsius target. If the current emission rate of 40 billion tons per year continues, the limit will be reached in about 10 years. UN Secretary-General Guterres has expressed a sense of crisis, saying that “the climate time bomb is ticking”.

Countries and regions are not helpless. According to Ember, a British think tank, global renewable energy generation tripled between 2000 and 2022. In the last 10 years alone, it has expanded to 1.8 times. China’s solar and wind power generation has also increased significantly. Professor Daisuke Hayashi of Ritsumeikan University in Japan points out that “after the 2000s, it was cultivated as a new industry at the national level in order to deal with air pollution.”

The problem is that renewable energy alone cannot support a growing economy. Global coal power generation is also set to grow by 15 percent in 10 years, rising almost continuously.

Higher temperatures from a warming climate will deepen dependence on the fossil fuels that cause it. The pattern of this vicious cycle is currently surfacing. The buffer of only 10 years left may even be shortened further.