A Worrying Resurgence of Coal Becomes a Key Focus at Glasgow

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Australia did not join other nations in a pledge to phase out coal by the 2040s.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Australia did not join other nations in a pledge to phase out coal by the 2040s. Doug Peters / UK Government via Flickr

Is coal-burning in the midst of being banished from the world’s energy systems? Or is it, on the contrary, bouncing back as countries reboot their economies after the pandemic lockdown? The answer may seal the fate of the planet, but it remains up in the air after contradictory claims in recent hours at the Glasgow climate summit. Politicians are optimistic; scientists much less so.

In Glasgow Wednesday night, more than 40 nations promised to stop burning coal to generate their electricity by the 2040s. They included major coal-users such as Poland, Canada, Chile, Ukraine, and Vietnam — though not others, such as China, India, the United States, and Australia. Still, adding to the optimism among delegates, more than 100 financial institutions joined 20 donor governments — this time including the U.S. — in agreeing to stop funding new coal-fired power plants in foreign countries from the end of next year.

“The end of coal is in sight,” claimed UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

But not so fast.

New research published hours after the announcements shows that, whatever the pledges of politicians, coal has been the fuel of choice for many governments to stimulate their industries in the wake of the pandemic. Scientists behind the latest assessment of the Global Carbon Budget, which uses up-to-date monthly data on fuel use from major countries, say a decline in coal burning worldwide underway since 2014 has come to an abrupt end in 2021.

They report that carbon emissions are projected to rise 4.9 percent this year, almost wiping out a 5.4 percent decline during the 2020 lockdown. Rising emissions from burning coal are the main cause.

The scientists, from 70 research organizations across the world, say the coal kicker could be a brief “sugar hit,” as governments revert to tried and tested methods of boosting their economies. Or it could be the start of a long-term revival of coal that would dash hopes that carbon emissions are near a peak that could presage a decline later this decade.

“Decarbonization of energy showed a strong and growing signal in the decade to 2019,” says Global Carbon Project researcher Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia. “A lot of progress has been made since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015,” with fossil fuels replaced by renewables, and a switch among fossil fuels from dirty coal to less-polluting natural gas.

Twenty-three countries, representing a quarter of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, have in the past decade reduced emissions even as their economies grew. In most cases, this trend remains even when allowance is made for the carbon footprint of imported goods, she says.

Thanks to this progressive decarbonisation of some major economies, global CO2 emissions rose on average by just 0.9 percent each year between 2010 and 2019, less than a third the rate in the previous decade. They all but flatlined in 2018 and 2019. Coal burning peaked in 2014, and has since fallen, leading the researchers to speculate that, in recent years, emissions were at long last also close to peaking.

Now they are not so sure. They believe that coal burning will rise globally by 5.7 percent in 2021. Another year of growth could push it back above the 2014 peak. “The strength and nature of the rebound … shows the world has done little to focus on a green recovery,” says project researcher Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway. “The recovery package was too dirty.”

The standout example is India. This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to reduce coal burning in the coming decade so that half the country’s energy comes from renewables by 2030. Yet the energy data supplied to the Carbon Budget researchers shows instead a staggering 15 percent increase in coal burning in India in 2021.

China, too, has this year reversed a trend of declining coal use. The country “went back to doing things the old way,” Peters says. The result will be a projected 2.5 percent increase in coal burning, which will exceed its 2013 peak.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas whose emissions are rising. Methane emissions in particular must be staunched. That could happen thanks to a landmark agreement announced in Glasgow earlier in the week.

And fossil fuels are not the only source of anthropogenic emissions of CO2. Land use, including deforestation, is important, too. Here the trends remain more encouraging, says Global Carbon Project researcher Julia Pongratz of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. In 2021, net land-use emissions — the balance between emissions and uptake by ecosystems — continued on a downward trend that has been underway for at least two decades, falling below 3 billion tons for the first time this year.

Deforestation has slowed, and absorption of CO2 by trees regrowing on abandoned farmland has increased. She warns, however, that the data is less reliable than for fossil fuel emissions and may not have fully captured recent forest destruction in Brazil.

Still, the big question for now, say the Global Carbon Project researchers, is what happens to fossil fuel emission and, in particular, whether the best guide to future emissions is the good news from the decade before the pandemic, or the bad news from 2021.

“We are still in a strong position to turn things round. Glasgow could be a game-changer,” Le Quéré says. “We have experience of how to make emissions decline,” by putting in place energy policies that drive reductions in the use of fossil fuels.

But the task is formidable. She estimates that to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 F) requires limiting all future emissions to a total of 420 billion tons of CO2. At current emissions rates, that limit will be reached in just 11 years. So urgent reductions are needed now. A plausible path, says Le Quéré, would see emissions cuts on the scale that happened during 2020, but repeated year-on-year until emissions get to net-zero by mid-century.

And what really counts, especially in the short term, says Peters, is what happens to coal. If its recent rebound in economies such as China and India proves more than a post-pandemic surge, then the world is in deep, deep trouble — on track for 3 or 4 degrees C at least.

The Glasgow conference’s priority, Peters says, should not be what happens in 2050, nor even in 2030. Declarations about banishing coal in the 2040s are right now beside the point. “The big question for the COP is what gets done today and next year to stop emissions going up,” he says. And “coal is the big uncertainty.”

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