Even a climate crisis can't stop the world's appetite for burning coal
The world’s addiction is not abating as prices and demand surge this year
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One of the goals of the COP26 UN climate summit currently underway in Scotland is to take definitive action toward the burning of coal around the world to produce electricity.
The phrase "consign coal to history" is heard often, coined by Alok Sharma, president of COP26, the annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) that's supposed to decide climate action under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The aspiration seems logical; for decades it's been obvious that coal is a source of significant pollution.
Slowing down the burning of coal should be low-hanging fruit for world leaders, but if the 2021 climate summit wants to seal the fate of coal-fired power plants, recent months have provided a reality check of how difficult the task will be. The world's appetite for burning the black nuggets is not abating.
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This year, recovering economic activity is expected to push global coal demand up 4.5 per cent, a growth rate which is higher than 2019 levels before the pandemic.
The Australian government, for one, has said the country would keep producing and exporting coal "well beyond 2030."
While Canada is phasing out coal-fired power, burning coal remains the world's favoured option to produce electricity. That increasing demand is why almost every lump of coal that U.S. miners will dig out of the ground next year has already been sold.
Coal prices are also through the roof, hitting record levels in many parts of the world this year.
Ernie Thrasher, CEO of U.S.-based XCoal Energy and Resources said he "would have never envisioned," the commodity price spike, during an interview with energy consultancy IHS Markit last month.
Thrasher said a rapid energy transition is "an aspiration and a goal that we should have," but the current situation illustrates how "a dose of logic and reality is needed."
'We haven't seen the end of it'
The story of coal, of course, is a story of China.
It's responsible for about two-thirds of the world's consumption — and is the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter. Having low-cost, abundant, and reliable electricity is essential for its economy which is heavily reliant on manufacturing and other industrial activity.
"We haven't seen the end of it. It continues," said Edward Cunningham, director of the Harvard Kennedy School Asia Energy and Sustainability Initiative, about China's growing number of coal-fired power plants.
"If you were to ask me when 'will we see China's coal-fired power fleet halved from today,' I guess my answer would be, I would be surprised if it was by 2040," he said, during an episode of the Energy vs. Climate podcast.
Others are more optimistic. The IEA's executive director Fatih Birol isn't concerned about coal's resurgence or a potential impact on the climate summit.
"The momentum is much bigger than that. We will overcome that difficulty," he said in an interview.
Since 2010, coal power plant retirements have averaged around 25 gigawatts (GW) each year, largely reflecting the closure of aging plants in Europe and North America, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
When Alberta announced in 2014 it would phase out coal by 2030, it was relying on coal for 55 per cent of its electricity. The province now thinks it will be off coal by 2023.
Around the globe, approvals of new coal-fired plants have slowed dramatically in recent years because of low cost renewable energy alternatives, rising awareness of environmental risks, and increasingly scarce options for financing. Yet, some 140 GW of new coal plants are currently under construction and more than 400 GW are at various stages of planning, according to the IEA.
"I've always said that every country starts from a different energy mix, but ultimately, pushing forward on clean power is something that benefits each country individually and us collectively as an international community," said Sharma, the COP26 president.
Action on coal is key
At COP26, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will stop exporting thermal coal by 2030. G20 countries, including China, have agreed to end public financing for coal-fired power generation abroad.
While there is ambition for world leaders to take action, there is also stubbornness in the status quo. It's a point of frustration for environmental groups.
"A decision from COP26 must include a direct commitment to phasing out fossil fuels. It's not good enough for the energy transition and fossil fuel production to remain a subtext of these conversations," said Catherine Abreu, the Ottawa-based founder of Destination Zero.
Developed countries need to make clean energy technologies more affordable, she said, and stop exporting coal.
The average age of coal plants in Asia is 13 years, according to the IEA, which demonstrates how most of the facilities still have plenty of expected lifespan. (In advanced economies, the IEA says, the average age of coal power plants is about 35 years.) Shuttering them early would mean stranding an asset and taking a loss on an investment.
Still, tackling the coal conundrum is imperative to have an impact on climate change. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called it a "deadly addiction," as the burning of coal represents the biggest single obstacle to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C.
The commodity's resurgence this year shows the obituary is, at this point, far from written despite changes in the developed world.
It may also show how difficult it may be for world leaders to reduce emissions from less-intensive sources of energy, like oil and natural gas, if countries can't even tackle the worst fossil fuel of the bunch.
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