Coal Ash Wednesday: Pandemic recovery is boosting coal burning


2021 is shaping up to be a really bad year for global emissions:

The pandemic abruptly slowed the global march of coal. But demand for the world’s dirtiest fuel is forecast to soar this year, gravely undermining the chances of staving off the worst effects of global warming.

Burning coal is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and, after a pandemic-year retreat, demand for coal is set to rise by 4.5 percent this year, mainly to meet soaring electricity demand, according to data published Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, just two days before a White House-hosted virtual summit aimed at rallying global climate action.

Any time you have an economic setback, the "easy way forward" is the first to get chosen. Coal deposits are still abundant, even after a few centuries of sustained mining, and they are relatively easy to access. In other words, it will take a continued (global) effort to promote alternatives, or the human race will always revert to that "easy" approach when economic pressure comes to bear. We have made much progress in the right direction:

Global spending on coal projects dropped to its lowest level in a decade in 2019. And, over the last 20 years, more coal-fired power plants have been retired or shelved than commissioned. The big holdouts are China, India and parts of Southeast Asia, but, even there, coal’s once-swift growth is nowhere as swift as it was just a few years ago, according to a recent analysis.

In some countries where new coal-fired power plants were only recently being built by the gigawatts, plans for new ones have been shelved, as in South Africa, or reconsidered, as in Bangladesh, or facing funding troubles, as in Vietnam. In some countries, like India, existing coal plants are running way below capacity and losing money. In others, like the United States, they are being decommissioned faster than ever.

But virtually all of that progress is about to be wiped out thanks to China, India, and (believe it or not) Australia:

There are some big exceptions. Indonesia and Australia continue to mine their abundant coal deposits. Perhaps most oddly, Britain, which is hosting the next international climate talks, is opening a new coal mine. And then there are the world’s biggest coal consumers, China and India.

China’s economy rebounded in 2020. Government stimulus measures encouraged the production of steel, cement and other industrial products that eat up energy. Coal demand rose. The capacity of China’s fleet of coal-fired power plants grew by a whopping 38 gigawatts in 2020, making up the vast majority of new coal projects worldwide and offsetting nearly the same amount of coal capacity that was retired worldwide. (One gigawatt is enough to power a medium-sized city.)

India’s coal fleet is growing as well, bankrolled by state-owned lenders. There is not much of a signal from the government that it wants to reduce its reliance on coal, even as it seeks to expand solar energy. The government in New Delhi is allowing some of its oldest, most polluting coal plants to remain open, and it is seeking private investors to mine coal. If India’s economy recovers this year, its coal demand is set to rise by 9 percent, according to the I.E.A.

Not only does the Biden administration need to (quickly) undo the damage from Trump's domestic energy policy, an even bigger challenge is on the diplomatic front. But he has to establish influence before he can wield it with China and India, and barking at them won't get us there. We need leverage, and preferably not of the punitive type. That would simply feed into Xi's paranoia about world powers "repressing" China. So we need a carrot and not a stick. Actually, a shitload of carrots, which is one of China's big export items. Food brings people together better than anything else. And before you say it, I realize the carbon footprint problem with the global food trade. But if we can knock down China's coal consumption by 15-20 Gigawatts, I'll eat that carrot with gusto.