How long is the coal era going to last?
« Coal-fired power generation is set to reach an all-time high in 2021 ». This is what the International Energy Agency states in its ‘Coal 2021’ report, forecasting that electricity production from coal is expected to increase by 9% in 2021 compared to 2020. The Agency foresees that coal use in 2022 could equate its all-time high of 2013-2014 and stay there until 2024 before it starts declining. Just months after the release of the Working Group 1 contribution to the sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and the COP26 in Glasgow, this temporary resurgence of coal is all but good news for the climate.
The energy source that made our industrial society possible in the 19th century is still at the heart of our energy system. In 2019, coal accounted for about 25% of the global primary energy demand and 37% for the global electricity production. While a country like France is about to close its last coal power plants, several developed countries are still very reliant on coal-fired electricity generation. It accounts for 19% of electricity in the USA, 23% in Germany and 29% in Japan.
What is coal ?
Coal is a sedimentary rock with a high carbon content formed by the decomposition of wood, plants and leaves under high temperatures and pressures. There are in fact different types of coal, which are classified according to their carbon content, their energy density - the amount of energy per kg - or their moisture content. These include high-carbon anthracite, hard coal, and brown coal. Lignite, with its relatively low energy density, is for example largely dominant in Germany- its energy density is hardly higher than that of dry wood, 18MJ/kg and 16MJ/kg, respectively.
Coal was already used in China 2,000 years ago. It was used for “industrial” applications in Belgium as early as the 12th century. But it was in England that it really took off: in 1700, that country was already using 3 million tons of coal, particularly for the iron and steel industry. Coal made it possible to exceed the limit posed by heavy deforestation due to the development of the iron and steel industry - an activity that consumed a great deal of charcoal - and by the demand for timber for construction - for carpentry and ships. It also marked a pivot from a flow economy, limited by the speed of growth of trees and biomass, to a stock economy based on the extraction of this material accumulated over millions of years. Interestingly, not everything started out well for coal, which met with strong opposition. In 1306, King Edward I of England banned the use of coal in the kingdom because of the smoke emitted by its combustion and the resulting deterioration in air quality.
An ever-increasing dependence
In 2020, the global coal production was almost 8 billion tons- more than a ton per inhabitant. Nearly half of the global production comes from China, while India is the second largest producer with about 800 million tons- about 5 times less than China. It is used mainly for electricity production (66%) and for steel production (12%)
Coal accounted for about 47% of the world's primary energy in 1900, with biomass accounting for 50%. Although the 19th century is often seen as the century of coal, it was still largely dominated by the use of biomass - coal only reached parity with biomass towards the end of that century. While during the 20th century this share decreased, total coal production increased sixfold as the world primary energy demand increased. Coal's share even increased at the beginning of the 21st century due to production in China, which tripled between 2000 and 2019, driven by an economy growing at nearly 10% per year. Between 2008 and 2016, China added between 40 and 60 GW of coal-fired power capacity each year - equivalent to the total capacity of France's nuclear power plants (60 GW). Yet it is the energy source that emits the most CO2 per unit of power produced.
Transitioning away from coal, and more generally from fossil fuels, is a must to decrease CO2 emissions and limit climate change. In its Net-Zero by 2050 scenario, the IEA recalls that any new investment in unabated fossil fuel development goes against climate targets. Many countries, including China and the USA, have pledged to stop financing the construction of coal power plants overseas. This agreement did not include domestic developments or use. Indeed, over the period March 2020-March 2021, CO2 emissions from China were already 6% higher than in 2019 – mainly fuelled by strong increases in demands for energy and metallurgy. Recent estimates show that around 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal must be left in the ground to have a chance to maintain global warming below 1.5 degrees.
Will we soon get rid of coal ?
In total, there are about 2,000 GW of coal-fired power generation capacity installed worldwide and about 500 GW under construction or planned. The rate of construction has tended to decline in recent years, as the use of coal is incompatible with climate commitments. Coal-fired power generation declined slightly (0.7%/year) over the period 2010-2018. Resources being plentiful, their exhaustion is not to be counted on to help move away from coal. Worse, the soaring gas prices, and energy crunch, have led some countries (like the UK) to re-open coal plants. The recent trend, and the magnitude of our dependance likely means that rather than an energy of the past, coal is likely to remain in our energy mix for quite some time.
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Greg De Temmerman is managing director of Zenon Research, a think tank studying the links between energy and the economy. He is also associate researcher at MINES ParisTech PSL. He is a physicist by training, specialised in plasma physics and materials science. From 2014-2020 he was coordinating scientist at the ITER Organization.