Coal, here today and tomorrow (Part 2)
Much of the public, but we are guessing fewer of our readers, think that coal use around the world is declining as a result of public policies to make it so. It is in fact going in the opposite direction. Coal use in power plants around the world is increasing and we have the numbers to prove it.
Planned Additions to Capacity
Looking to the future, total coal power capacity under development (announced, pre-permit, permitted and construction stages) rose from 502.3 GW in 2019 to 503.1 GW in 2020.
Table 2 lists the countries that have significant amounts of coal-fired generation under development. Many others are making smaller additions.
Coal Power Capacity Under Development by Country 2021
Country Under Development (GW)
South Africa 8,024
South Korea 7,260
Source: Global Energy Monitor
Somewhat surprisingly, even some less developed countries in Africa are planning on adding considerable coal-fired capacity, including Zimbabwe (5,160 GW), Nigeria (2,430 GW), Botswana (1.,650 GW) and Kenya (1,050 GW).
Implications for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions
The trends in GHG emissions from coal-fired generation depend on the relationship between the additions to capacity and the withdrawals from capacity. The latter have been significant for at least a decade, driven both by government policies and by economic factors, notably including the increased availability and price competitiveness of natural gas for power generation. Attaining the political goal of “net zero” however, depends not just on reducing the role of coal, but in eliminating it. A recent report issued by a group of organizations that support the net zero objective1 instead illustrates the “gap” between projected capacity and that which would meet the 1.5 degree C. goal over the next ten years. In the case of the OECD countries, the non-OECD countries, or China, no region is remotely close to meeting the “required” capacity reductions. Even in the case of the OECD countries, national and operator phase-out decisions would produce a net reduction in coal-fired capacity of 74 GW, to 449 GW. That is a long way from a complete phase out, and the gap is far wider in the non-OECD countries.
The reasons are easy to see. Electricity generating plants often have operating lives of close to thirty years, although with proper maintenance many can operate for forty to fifty years. The large number of plants that have been built over the last decade and those now under development can thus be expected to operate until at least 2040 and possibly as long as 2070. If the plants now under development operate for just thirty years, they will emit at least 57 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The lower-income Asian and African countries can ill afford to turn these expensive investments into “stranded assets”, regardless of the preferences of western environmentalists.
A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) illustrates why reduction of global coal utilization is a fool’s errand. It predicts at least three years of surging coal demand. The report states that “all evidence indicates a widening gap between political ambitions and targets on the one side and the realities of current energy systems on the other.”
It further stated that global coal trends will be shaped largely by China and India, who account for two-thirds of global coal consumption – despite their efforts to increase renewables. We know that such efforts are for show to the rest of the world but not serious indicators of the future energy sources for either country.
While Asia is leading the way with higher coal consumption, the IEA says coal use has also jumped sharply in the United States, England and Europe as power generators switch out of high priced natural gas. Depending on weather patterns and economic growth, the IEA said overall coal demand could reach record highs in 2022 and again in the following two years.
The chasm that exists between rhetoric and reality holds grave lessons for politicians who have misread the trends on fossil fuels
Coal remains one of the most important providers of energy services to the people of the world. On the basis of current and projected developments, it will remain a large source of electricity generation until long after 2050, the artificial deadline established by the United Nations for reaching “net zero”. This is not the only reason why the net zero goal is infeasible. It is, however, the one that throws into sharpest contrast the difference between the antipathy of global political elites for a single hydrocarbon source and the real-life preferences of energy producers and consumers.
Faced with the dictates of national governments to prematurely phase out coal-fired power plants at immense cost in terms of foregone value, American consumers can only be left wondering. The combined capacity of the operating coal-fired power plants in the United States is today 234,000 GW. China’s planned additions of almost 247,000 GW alone exceed the reduction in capacity if those American plants were shut down. At which stage will the futility of current policy become clear to the voters who now not only tolerate but support it?
If we have not yet convinced you at least keep it in mind next November.
CFACT Senior Science Analyst Jay Lehr has authored more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 36 books. Jay’s new book A Hitchhikers Journey Through Climate Change written with Teri Ciccone is now available on Kindle and Amazon.
Robert Lyman is an economist with 37 years of service to the Canadian government.