Our Burning Planet


Electricity demand: Global economic recovery sends coal usage soaring

Electricity demand: Global economic recovery sends coal usage soaring
Coal piles at the Phola coal processing plant in Ogies, South Africa, on Friday, 15 October 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The International Energy Agency recently announced that the amount of electricity generated worldwide from coal surged by an estimated 9% to a new record high in 2021 — and this year it’s expected to be even higher.

Despite the wealth of scientific evidence about its deleterious impact on the environment and the flood of commitments and pledges to reduce its role in the global energy mix, the amount of electricity generated worldwide from coal surged by an estimated 9% to a new record high in 2021.

This is according to the Coal 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA explains that this strong growth potentially puts global coal demand on course for an all-time high this year.

“Coal is the single largest source of global carbon emissions, and [2021’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,” said IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol. 

Rapidly reducing global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is an increasingly urgent and necessary task if humanity is to limit an increase in the average global temperature to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The most recent accounting of the science of climate change and global warming — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report Six Working Group I report — estimates the value of global warming to date at 1.1°C.

Beyond 1.5°C is what is considered “dangerous climate change”. One of the headline statements to emerge from that sobering report said that “many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost”.

In 2020, as much of the world stayed indoors to “bend the (Covid-19) curve”, global coal demand fell by 4.4%. It was the largest decline in decades, but much smaller than the annual drop that was initially expected at the height of the lockdowns early in the pandemic, the IEA report shows.

According to the IEA, this increase from the decreases seen in the years prior to the pandemic “is being driven by this year’s rapid economic recovery, which has pushed up electricity demand much faster than low-carbon supplies can keep up”.

The news emerging from the IEA’s report is especially unwelcome considering a recent, updated model of limits to fossil fuel extraction, published as an article in the journal Nature. It found that “nearly 90% of economically viable global coal reserves must be left in the ground to have even a 50% chance of hitting internationally agreed climate-change goals.

“For a 50% chance of remaining below 1.5°C of global warming — the more aspirational goal of the 2015 Paris agreement — the world must not emit more than 580 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide before 2100”, and “89% of coal reserves, 58% of oil reserves and 59% of gas reserves must remain unextracted”, it said. OBP/DM

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