The World Is on Track to Generate a Record Amount of Power From Coal in 2021, the IEA Says

According to the International Energy Agency, (IEA), this year’s coal-generated electricity will surpass low-carbon options. This is likely to cause an unprecedented increase in electricity production. That means that the world’s climate targets may be getting further out of reach.

Global power generation from coal is expected to jump by 9% in 2021, according to the Paris-based intergovernmental organization’s 2020 CoalThe report was published on Friday. About 30% of the global CO2 emissions are caused by coal-fired power generation.

“Coal is the single largest source of global carbon emissions, and this year’s historically high level of coal power generation is a worrying sign of how far off track the world is in its efforts to put emissions into decline towards net zero,” Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, said in a press release.
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China, India and the U.S. are the main drivers of the increase. China’s power generation, which accounts for more than a third global coal consumption, is expected to see a 9% increase in coal-fired electricity generation. India’s coal-fired power generation is forecast to rise by 12% between now and 2021. The IEA estimates that this would bring coal-fired electricity generation in India to its highest level ever.

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In the U.S. and the E.U., coal power generation is set to increase by almost 20% this year over 2020, when economies were hit by the pandemic, but the amount of energy generated from coal won’t reach 2019 levels. It is predicted that the U.S. will continue to consume coal in 2020, but not at the same rate as the E.U. Slow electricity demand growth, combined with the introduction of renewable energy will cause the coal consumption to drop again next year.

The IEA report forecasts that global coal consumption, which includes uses other than generating electricity like cement and steel production, will rise by 6% in this year’s forecast and may surpass all records for 2022.

The industrialization of developed countries has been powered by fossil fuels for hundreds of years. However, the 2015 Paris Agreement acknowledges that developing countries will need to take longer to achieve peak emission levels. But how China and India, the world’s second and sixth largest economies, power their growth will play a pivotal role in the world’s ability to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—a threshold that scientists have warned would have catastrophic impacts if breached.

Sajjad Hussain—AFP/Getty Images Photo taken by Saurya Urja Company of Rajasthan Limited on October 6, 2021. It shows solar panels located at the Bhadla Solar Park (Bhadla), in Rajasthan, the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.

“Asia dominates the global coal market, with China and India accounting for two-thirds of overall demand. These two economies—dependent on coal and with a combined population of almost three billion people—hold the key to future coal demand,” Keisuke Sadamori, director of energy markets and security at the IEA, said in a press release. “The pledges to reach net zero emissions made by many countries, including China and India, should have very strong implications for coal, but these are not yet visible in our near-term forecast, reflecting the major gap between ambitions and action.”

India and China both have net zero targets. Xi Jinping (Chinese President) stated that the country’s per capita carbon emissions is only half of those found in the U.S. in April. He also said that the country will become carbon neutral within 2060. The country—which is the world’s largest producer, consumer and importer of coal, according to the IEA—will reduce coal use beginning in 2026. Xi announced in September that China would no longer finance coal projects abroad.

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India—where per capita emissions are likewise a small fraction of those of the United States—made a surprise announcement in his speech at the opening of the COP26 U.N. climate summit in November. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, pledged to achieve net zero emissions in 2070. This target has been called utopian by some but is still possible.

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A number of top-coal-consuming nations are leading the push to promote renewable energy. Modi said in November that India will produce more renewable energy than the nation’s entire grid by 2030.

According to an IEA report, China will account for 43% global renewable energy development over the next five year. Europe, America, India and the U.S. are close behind, with the rest of the world relying on them. The combined global renewable energy growth of China, India, Europe and the U.S. will be 80% over that same time period.

Still, there is a gap between the countries ambitions and what’s happening, according to the IEA. In a press conference to discuss the report, Birol called the report a “sobering reality check of the government policies.”

“This year coal electricity generation and next year the entire coal use may hit a historic high,” he says. “It shows us that coal and the emissions that come from coal are stubborn. They don’t pay attention to what the government says, what experts say, what the wishful thinking is.”


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