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Global Coal Use Surging, Raising Concerns About Climate Goals

Surging global coal demand “may well hit a new all-time high in the next two years,” according to an International Energy Agency report, reversing several years of declines and raising concerns about reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, as called for in the Paris Agreement.

While coal use had been declining even before the pandemic due to low natural gas prices and growth of renewable energy, the COVID-19 lockdowns caused greatly reduced electricity demand and weaker gas prices. However, the economic recovery has been stronger than expected and resulted in many countries, particularly in Asia, using coal at a record rate.

“The declines in global coal-fired power generation in 2019 and 2020 led to expectations that it might have peaked in 2018. But 2021 dashed those hopes. With electricity demand outpacing low-carbon supply, and with steeply rising natural gas prices, global coal power generation is on course to increase by 9% in 2021 to 10,350 terawatt-hours (TWh) – a new all-time high,” the report states.

Coal power generation was forecast to increase by almost 20% in the U.S. and European Union, 12% in India, and 9% in China - record levels in both of those countries. Overall coal demand worldwide was expected to grow by 6% in 2021. The report noted that China’s influence is “difficult to overstate.” The country’s overall coal use is more than half of the global total.

The report predicts that demand will continue to increase over the next two years, driven largely by China and India, rising to an all-time high in 2022 and remaining there through 2024. While the rebound in the U.S. and Europe is expected to be brief, with declines in use resuming, coal-fired power generation is expected to increase at record levels in India and China.

The continued growth of global coal consumption is expected to “put the world further from the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 trajectory,” the report states. Experts have said that if the world is to meet the emissions targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, decarbonization of energy sources needs to begin now.

“In short, all evidence indicates a widening gap between political ambitions and targets on one side and the realities of the current energy system on the other. This disconnect has two clear implications: climate targets are getting further out of reach, and energy security is at risk because, while investments in fossil fuels are shrinking, funding for clean energy and technologies is not expanding quickly enough. This should be concerning not only for policymakers and industry, but all stakeholders,” the report warns.

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