Global energy use by source, 1965-2014. Graphic:  BP Statistical Review of Energy 2015

By Brad Plumer
7 July 2015

(Vox) – If you only focused on the United States, you might think coal's days were numbered.

The dirtiest of all fossil fuels once provided more than half of America's electricity. That has since dropped to 39 percent, thanks to competition from cheap natural gas, a tireless campaign by the Sierra Club to shutter old coal plants, and strict new air pollution regulations. Add in the Obama administration's upcoming crackdown on carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, and US coal will keep waning in the future.

But that's not true globally. Far from it. According to data from BP's Statistical Review of Energy, coal consumption has actually been accelerating worldwide since the end of the 1990s.

It's tempting to think this global coal boom is mainly a one-time blip due to China, where coal use has surged since 2000 amid frenetic economic growth but has since leveled off as the country tries to transition away from heavy industry. But as it turns out, that's not true either.

According to an important study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we're in the midst of a global "renaissance of coal" that's not confined to just a few countries like China or India. Rather, coal is becoming the energy source of choice for a vast array of poorer and fast-growing countries around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. "This renaissance of coal," the authors write, "has even accelerated in the last decade."

Why is coal so widely popular? The authors of the PNAS study — Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob — argue that coal is often the cheapest energy option in many parts of the world, relative to other sources like oil, gas, nuclear, or renewables.

What's interesting is that countries no longer need their own domestic mines to take advantage of coal power. International coal markets have become so robust, with exports surging in mining countries like Australia and Indonesia, that it's become much easier for a wide variety of countries to build coal-fired power plants. (Notably, the authors say, the price of coal itself, rather than the capital costs of building power plants, seems to be the important economic driver here.) [more]

The global coal renaissance is the most important climate story today

Share of coal in global primary energy use, from 1971-2011. Gray lines indicate the use of coal without CCS in business-as-usual scenarios, red lines show 500-ppm scenarios, and orange lines show 450-ppm scenarios. Black dashed lines indicate mean values for different scenario categories. Graphic: Steckel, et al., 2015

ABSTRACT: Coal was central to the industrial revolution, but in the 20th century it increasingly was superseded by oil and gas. However, in recent years coal again has become the predominant source of global carbon emissions. We show that this trend of rapidly increasing coal-based emissions is not restricted to a few individual countries such as China. Rather, we are witnessing a global renaissance of coal majorly driven by poor, fast-growing countries that increasingly rely on coal to satisfy their growing energy demand. The low price of coal relative to gas and oil has played an important role in accelerating coal consumption since the end of the 1990s. In this article, we show that in the increasingly integrated global coal market the availability of a domestic coal resource does not have a statistically significant impact on the use of coal and related emissions. These findings have important implications for climate change mitigation: If future economic growth of poor countries is fueled mainly by coal, ambitious mitigation targets very likely will become infeasible. Building new coal power plant capacities will lead to lock-in effects for the next few decades. If that lock-in is to be avoided, international climate policy must find ways to offer viable alternatives to coal for developing countries.

Drivers for the renaissance of coal



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