The Messy Fate of Coal: War, Heat, and Instability Delay a Global Phaseout

As Europe becomes increasingly divorced from Russian natural gas, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands recently announced plans to restart phased-out coal power plants for the coming winter if necessary. Ironically, European countries were reprimanding India and China last November for rewording a key goal of the Glasgow Climate Pact from the “phase-out” to the “phasedown” of “unabated coal power.” “China and India are going to have to explain themselves to the most climate vulnerable countries in the world,” said British MP and conference president Alok Sharma. And with an August 22 start to the EU’s ban on Russian coal nearing, the EU and UK are turning to South Africa and Botswana as their main coal supply alternatives, despite recently agreeing to help give South Africa $8.5 billion to decrease its dependence on coal through the 2021 Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP). However temporary, Europe’s moves to bring back coal represent a step backwards from the UN Paris Climate Agreement goal of a coal-free EU by 2030 and the UK’s goal of being coal-free by October 1, 2024.

The loss of Russian natural gas is just one of many unforeseen obstacles delaying a global transition away from coal, which provides over one-third of the world’s electricity yet generates the most pollution and greenhouse gases. In India, the immediate task of preventing the country from becoming unlivably hot has been taking precedence over UN decarbonization goals for 2070. Amid a 120-degree heat wave this past May, coal shortages in 9 of 28 Indian states caused power outages of up to 14 hours per day. The lack of electricity for fans and air conditioners during the current heat wave has resulted in 90 deaths across India and Pakistan this year.

India has the world’s third-largest coal reserves in the ground, but its coal stockpiles have dwindled. This has hampered its efforts to close the gap between those with cooling systems and those without. Only 12% of Indians have air conditioning, and some 323 million (nearly equal to the entire US population) lack access to working fans and refrigerators, according to a May report by Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL). Many Indian farms are losing up to half of their produce as it rots in the heat in the absence of working fans.

Meanwhile, after mass blackouts last year, electricity demand in China has already set records this summer, due to heat waves and high factory activity amid its post-pandemic industrial rebound. In June, these strains on China’s grid prompted premier Li Keqiang to urge “tapping into advanced coal capacity” and to call for “efforts to ramp up efficient and clean coal power production… underpinning the push for renewables such as wind and solar power,” according to Chinese state media. In fact, over half of the new coal plants being built in the world today are in China, contrary to President Xi Xinping’s 2021 promise that China would reach peak coal use in 2025 and start phasing it down in 2026.

Xi’s current rhetoric has emphasized the need to balance lowering carbon emissions with maintaining social stability and productivity. In January, he said in a Politburo session that the goal of greenhouse gas reduction should not conflict with other priorities that “ensure the normal life of the masses,” like providing food, energy, and materials. “The gradual withdrawal of traditional energy must be based on the safe and reliable replacement by new energy,” said Xi.

But even as China produces and consumes half the world’s coal and continues to invest in new coal plants, its eventual transition away from coal could be sharp. China has rapidly developed alternative energy sources, such that now—despite being the world’s biggest polluter—it is a “clean energy powerhouse,” the world’s biggest investor in green energy and the world leader in solar, wind, and hydropower. In recent decades, China has dramatically reduced the cost of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, to the world’s benefit. Shenzhen, the fourth-largest city in China, converted all of its over 16,000 buses and another 22,000 taxis to electric vehicles over a decade, with the help of national and local government mandates and subsidies. The province of Qinghai, population 6 million, has become a wind and solar showcase and ran on entirely renewable energy for a week. And China may soon become the world leader in nuclear energy as well: In November 2021, it announced plans to build 150 nuclear reactors (which emit no greenhouse gases or pollution) by 2035, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35 years. In short, while China will continue to use coal as a bridge to the future, its success in developing alternative energy sources—along with its habit of building infrastructure, like coal plants, then tearing it down within a few decades—are signs that by China may be poised to make a dramatic shift away from coal by 2040, if not earlier.
 
China (57%) and India (51%) both get over half their electricity from coal today. They provide energy for 36% of the world’s population, much of which received electricity for the first time in the last decade or two. And in the ASEAN region, coal power has skyrocketed due to hyper-speed industrialization and plentiful available coal reserves, especially in Indonesia and Vietnam. Many ASEAN coal plants were built by China through the Belt and Road Initiative, and while many coal plants in the West are 40 or 50 years old, Southeast Asia’s are the youngest in the world, averaging under 12 years old. But the coal plant building spree in Southeast Asia may soon slow dramatically, as China, Japan, and South Korea, the region’s top three foreign funders of coal plants, have all recently announced that they are cutting funding for new coal projects overseas.

The West on the whole has managed to drastically reduce coal use, in the EU to roughly half 1990s levels and in the US to 1980s levels. But on closer inspection, the regions and countries within the West are heavily divided on coal. For example, France’s coal use is near zero, as 70% of its electricity comes from nuclear power. By contrast, coal provides nearly half the electricity in Poland, and it is still a significant power source in the Czech Republic, Germany, Bulgaria, and the UK. Only two EU countries still produce any coal at all, Poland (96%) and the Czech Republic (4%), making the region especially vulnerable to the upcoming EU ban on Russian coal.

US coal use peaked in the late 2000s, and since then, scores of coal plants across America have been retired or converted to natural gas plants, which are fed by the US fracking boom. But coal use varies widely across US states. For example, West Virginia still gets 88% of its electricity from coal and Indiana 47%, whereas Texas is at 20% and Vermont and Rhode Island are coal-free.

The coal divide also runs through Africa and Latin America. While both regions have largely avoided coal dependence, South Africa and Botswana are the exceptions. South Africa is world’s most coal-dependent nation, getting 90% of its electricity from coal. It has 19 of Africa’s 36 coal plants, while many African countries have none. Latin America enjoys plentiful hydropower as well as oil and gas reserves, and only 5% of its electricity comes from coal, with very few new coal plants planned. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, however, Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry last year published a nearly $4 billion plan to invest in “sustainable use of the national mineral coal.” And in January, Bolsonaro extended government subsidies for coal plants from 2027 to 2040 in Santa Catarina, one of Brazil’s coal-rich southern states. Bolsonaro’s initiatives are an attempt to boost the economies of southern Brazil, but they have drawn criticism domestically and abroad.

Australia is an energy paradox: a wealthy, modern country with massive natural resources and a population smaller than Texas, yet which relies on coal for around 75% of its electricity. There are many reasons for this. First, coal is abundant lucrative: Australia has the third-largest coal reserves in the world and is the world’s largest exporter of coal, mostly to Asia (although China banned Australian coal in 2020). Second, Australia is the driest inhabited continent, with very limited and unpredictable rivers to generate hydropower, which provides only about 5% of its electricity. And third, despite having one third of the world’s uranium stores, Australia has never had a nuclear power plant.

But the fate of coal power in Australia may shift dramatically in the next few years. The country is rapidly deploying wind and solar farms as the prices of turbines and solar panels drop, such that last December, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) announced that Australia is on track to cut its coal capacity by 60% by 2030. In February, Australia’s Origen Energy announced plans to shut down country’s biggest coal plant in 2025, seven years earlier than scheduled. In June, the state of Western Australia announced it will shut down its two remaining coal plants by 2030. And in July, The Australian Academy of Technical Sciences and Engineering projected that Australia could generate half its electricity from renewable sources by 2025—and 69% by 2030. If these predictions come true, Australia’s transition away from heavy coal dependence would be the fastest the world has ever seen.  

The global transition away from coal has been anything but smooth. It is possible that more regions that have made great progress in phasing out coal will be considering bringing it back, amid new unforeseen obstacles to energy security. And it could be decades before China and India, the behemoth coal consumers, start to cut back on coal significantly—especially as China has been investing heavily in clean coal research. But as cases like Australia and even China show, every day that coal hangs on, renewables are expanding and becoming cheaper. And this is a sign that an eventual end to the coal era could be on the horizon.

Robert C. Thornett
Robert C. Thornett
Robert C. Thornett is a social science educator and writer who has taught in four colleges and universities as well as international schools in seven countries. His work has been published in Yale Environment 360, Earth Island Journal, and The Solutions Journal.