If you had to distill the theme of almost every UN climate summit into one word, it would be “coal.”
Coal is the perennial bogeyman of the Conference of the Parties, as it is at the event’s latest edition, COP27, now under way in Egypt. By now there is essentially zero debate among governments, climate scientists and even the coal industry itself that holding global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is impossible as long as coal remains the single-biggest source of power generation. It is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Last year, coal emissions accounted for at least a quarter of all planet-warming carbon dioxide output, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The good news is that 75 countries, representing 95 per cent of total coal consumption, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2060, which means coal will have to be extracted from their energy mix fairly rapidly, at least in theory. The bad news is that coal is not going gentle into that sooty night.
The war in Ukraine and the energy crisis it has created have delayed coal-fired power plant closures in several countries, including a few in Europe. China is building almost 100 new coal plants, with the rest of Asia constructing a similar number. Several African countries are rushing to boost fossil fuel exports to energy-starved Europe. A few days ago, Mozambique sent its first shipment of liquefied natural gas to Europe. The delivery earned the opprobrium of environmental groups at COP27, who say the African oil and gas export rush is undermining the effort to keep the 1.5-degree limit alive.
Even Canada, which has done an admirable job in downgrading coal from its energy mix, may be slowing the phase-out of its remaining coal plants and allowing a few to expand. In the meantime, Canadian banks are still financing fossil fuel projects, including coal, mainly overseas.
Nova Scotia’s power generation remains highly carbon-intensive and may soon see the reopening of the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton, a producer of metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel (while such coal often gets a regulatory pass because it is essential for steelmaking, it is responsible for a hefty 5 per cent of global carbon emissions). And a new law governing coal projects in Alberta may allow the expansion of existing mines, notably the Vista project near Hinton, which produces coal for electricity generation. Various Canadian environmental groups have rung the Vista alarm at COP27.
Then there is the issue of what replaces coal plants when they are given the kiss of death. It’s not always clean energy. Often, natural gas plants, which are fairly cheap and can be built quickly, are rising from the ashes of coal – even though gas prices have soared since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Gas has about half the carbon intensity of coal, but it is still part of the problem, not the solution. “Going to gas is not any better,” said Julia Levin, the national climate program manager at Canada’s Environmental Defence group, at COP27.
Recent studies show that reports of coal’s death have been greatly exaggerated, even if most countries that use the fuel in both the developed and developing world have vowed to phase it out.
A new IEA report, Coal in Net Zero Transitions, released during COP27, treads the line between optimism and pessimism on the coal phase-out, though it is obvious from the data that coal is not being eliminated from the energy mix with any urgency.
The IEA notes that, in the decade to 2021, total installed coal-fired generation doubled. The agency called it the “fastest increase” in coal capacity since the technology was invented in the late 19th century. Rapid population growth and industrialization in the developing world can explain much of the rise.
Although energy produced from gas and wind and solar farms has also soared, coal plants have not lost favour because they are relatively easy to build and the fuel is plentiful and relatively cheap (companies such as Glencore continue to make billions from coal mining and exports). The result is that the compound average annual growth rate for coal use in the past decade was 0.3 per cent, despite the relentless pressure from many governments, environmental groups and pension fund investors to kill off the fuel. The lifespan of a new coal plant is 30 to 50 years, which means their emissions won’t disappear soon.
And coal use rose sharply last year as pandemic-whacked economies reopened. The result is disturbing. Global carbon dioxide emissions are at a record high, partly because coal emissions, which had peaked in 2014, are rebounding and are set to reach a new high in 2022, according to the Global Carbon Project and other sources.
Europe and North America seem to be fighting a losing battle with Asia to bring down global emissions. In May, the G7 countries, including Canada, agreed to phase out coal-powered energy, though they did not set an end date. The energy crisis, if it persists, could give some plants get-out-of-jail-free cards. Already, Britain, Germany, Italy and a few other European countries have delayed closing coal plants for fear the lights will go out. With little sign that the energy crisis will magically vanish, as the war in Ukraine slogs on, these coal burners could be operating for a long time.
Despite the possible aforementioned expansions and reopenings in Alberta and Nova Scotia, Canada has been at the forefront in the effort to kill off coal. In 2017 Canada and Britain created the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of national and regional governments committed to accelerating the demise of coal and replacing it with clean energy. Ontario is one of its inspirations. The province ended coal use in 2014. The former site of its biggest coal burner, Nanticoke, is now an enormous solar farm.
In Egypt, COP27 will not solve the coal problem. As COPs always do, the delegates will plead for commitments to end its use and will receive half-hearted, vague pledges from governments to do so. Then little or nothing will happen, as the coal-use data has clearly shown. The issue is then bumped to the next COP, and the one after it. This is why the effort to preserve the 1.5-degree warming target, though officially alive, is becoming non-officially dead.