Coal power is on track to hit a new global record this year after an economic rebound that could drive worldwide coal demand to an all-time high in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.
The amount of electricity generated from coal power plants has soared by 9% this year after a surge in fossil fuel demand to fuel the recovery from Covid lockdowns, a report by the watchdog says.
Coal power fell by 4% in 2020 as the pandemic caused a global economic slowdown, but the IEA found that demand for electricity this year had outpaced the growth in low-carbon sources, leading many wealthy economies to rely more heavily on fossil fuel power plants.
The global gas supply crunch, which has caused record-high prices worldwide, has also helped reignite demand for coal, the IEA report says.
The agency found that global demand for coal, including cement and steel making, rose by 6% overall this year. Although the total falls short of record levels of demand for the fuel in 2013 and 2014, the IEA warned that without a policy intervention that high could be surpassed next year.
Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director, said: “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.
“Without strong and immediate actions by governments to tackle coal emissions – in a way that is fair, affordable and secure for those affected – we will have little chance, if any at all, of limiting global warming to 1.5C.”
The report comes weeks after the conclusion of the Cop26 climate talks, which ended in a fierce disagreement over a pledge to abandon coal. A last-minute intervention by India successfully watered down the language of the pact from “phasing out” to “phasing down”.
After the talks, held in Glasgow last month, the Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, said India and China would “have to explain themselves to poor nations” after watering down the Glasgow climate pact, adding that their actions had left him “deeply frustrated”.
He told the Guardian: “We are on the way to consigning coal to history. This is an agreement we can build on. But in the case of China and India, they will have to explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did.”
The IEA report found India was on track to grow its coal-fired electricity generation by 12% this year, while China’s use of coal plants was forecast to increase by up to 9% despite a sharp slowdown in recent months. This would mark an all-time high in both countries, despite an “impressive” rollout of solar and wind power projects, the IEA said.
In the US and the EU, coal power generation is expected to rise by 20%, from low levels in 2020, which is likely to keep power plant use below the levels recorded in 2019. The use of coal plants is expected to go back into decline next year as electricity demand slows and the expansion of renewable energy alternatives continues.
In the UK, where coal power has been in steady decline in recent years, the owners of the last remaining coal power stations were paid record sums to help keep the lights on this year as electricity prices reached new highs after record gas market prices and one of the least windy summers since 1961.