On a quiet Sunday morning, an ear-splitting roar reverberated across the English village of Eggborough as four giant concrete cooling towers imploded and crashed to the ground, transformed to clouds of debris in a matter of seconds.
Just moments after their demolition, it became hard to imagine the structures were ever there, so out of place they were, jutting 90 meters into the sky among the green fields surrounding the River Aire.
The Eggborough power station is just one of 14 coal plants the United Kingdom has laid to rest over the past decade. In 2012, 40% of the UK’s power came from coal. By 2020, it was below 2%. Last year, the country went for 67 days without using any coal for power at all.
Climate leaders at the COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland, will on Thursday intensify their efforts to put an end date on the use of coal, the biggest single contributor to the climate crisis.
At the G20 meeting in Rome over the weekend, leaders failed to specify how they would phase out coal. It will be a tough ask to convince developing countries to go further than the rich world.
The picture is fairly rosy in western Europe and even the United States, where it seems the fossil fuel is indeed on its last legs, save for some pockets of resistance.
Belgium, Austria and Sweden are among a growing number of European countries that no longer use coal to generate electricity. In the US, which technically has no coal phaseout plan, coal has wound down dramatically in favor of natural gas, which emits about half the carbon dioxide. A slow but steady increase in wind power is also helping put coal out of business.
Globally, proposed coal plants are rapidly being canceled. A report by climate think tank E3G found a 76% reduction in proposed coal power since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
But the trend is distributed unevenly. Coal plants are still on rise throughout much of Asia, and while power generation from coal technically peaked in 2013, it has basically plateaued since then. The current global energy crisis, triggered by a quicker-than-expected economic rebound amid the pandemic, has even given it a bump. Coal prices last month were at an all-time high.
For every Belgium, Austria and Sweden there is a China, India, and Indonesia, where coal is still king. Consigning coal to history is a requirement to rein in rapid climate change, but it may not happen as quickly as Western climate leaders may like.
Yet Alok Sharma, the British lawmaker chairing COP26, is hopeful it can still happen.
The G20 did agree to stop financing international coal projects by the end of the year, he pointed out. China made a similar commitment in September, which removed the biggest source of international coal financing on the planet.
“This has effectively ended public finance for overseas coal projects,” Sharma told CNN.
“To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, all countries need to raise their ambition and act urgently to consign coal to history.”
There has been some movement. The UK government on Thursday announced that 23 new countries – including big coal users like Poland and Vietnam – and dozens of organizations had committed to stop building new coal projects and to phase out the fossil fuel by the 2030s for developed nations, and 2040s for the developing world.
Despite all this progress, a true global transition from coal will only happen when China decides.
China consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined
It was in China that the world saw the first large-scale coal mine as we know them, some 3,000 years ago, and China is likely to be the country that seals coal’s fate.
China now consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. That’s to keep the lights on for its 1.4 billion people, but also to make huge amounts of goods for export, and heavy-industry items – steel, cement, chemicals – used all around the world.
While China has pledged to stop financing coal projects abroad, it is still building coal plants and opening mines at a fast pace.
China has more than 1,200 major coal plants in operation, and has plans to build some 150 more, according to the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), which tracks fossil fuel infrastructure and financing around the world. In 2019 alone, China opened 102 mines, GEM data shows.
“The scale of what China has been building over the past two decades is extraordinary. It’s now half of the world’s coal power,” GEM’s program director for coal, Christine Shearer, told CNN.
“There’s been a lot of progress in halting the increase in coal plant proposals and in stabilizing coal power demand globally, but it just needs to happen much, much faster, if we want to keep climate goals alive.”
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Scientists say the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions this decade and reach net zero by mid-century to have any chance of containing global warming to a level that will avert catastrophe.
“To reach net-zero by 2050, you really need a zero-carbon power sector a decade earlier,” Shearer said. “So the world shouldn’t be using coal at all past 2040.”
China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said in Glasgow on Tuesday that his country’s goal was to strictly control coal consumption between now and 2025, and gradually reduce it until some point before 2030. Beijing also said recently that fossil fuels would make up just 20% of its energy mix by 2060, when it plans to be carbon neutral. Global climate leaders, including Sharma and US climate envoy John Kerry, have pressed China to move even faster and with more ambition.
China says it’s doing its fair share, and as a developing nation shouldn’t be expected to have the same targets as the developed world.
“Developed countries in the past 200 years, in the process of industrialization, have been emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and they have an unshirkable historical responsibility for global climate change,” China’s foreign ministry told CNN in a statement.
“China has always done what it says on responding to climate change. We will fully implement our commitments and will work hard to do better within our capabilities.”
A global energy crunch with China at its center hasn’t helped matters. Just a year ago, Beijing officials were asking provincial leaders to produce less coal, in part to help China meet its climate targets. But last month it ordered more than 70 mines in the province of Inner Mongolia to add 1 billion tons of coal to its output. Just a few weeks ago, it told every mine operator in the country to produce as much coal as they possibly can.
Looking at the activity in Inner Mongolia, it’s hard to imagine China meeting even its current pledges. More than 300 coal plants and 100 mines are dotted all along this province, which stretches 1,500 miles all the way up to Russia, on shifting landscapes of grassland steppes, desert, forests and wetlands.
But the province also has huge renewables potential, some of which it is exploring.
In the sand dunes of the province’s Kubuqi desert lies a giant solar farm the size of nearly 200 football fields, its panels carefully arranged so that if you peer at it from an airplane, they form the image of a galloping horse. Slowly, a re-greening project here is bringing plants, grass and agriculture back to this desert, once teeming with life that was lost from overuse of the land.
Li Danqing, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace in Beijing, said that coal-mining provinces in China were no different to those in any other country that has struggled to wean off coal – it has a lot to do with jobs. Some of the plants built in Inner Mongolia aren’t even necessary to meet demand, she said.
“There’s huge pressure to secure people’s livelihoods in these coal-mining provinces. So this is one thing that still needs to be solved – how to find new industries for them,” Li told CNN.
“Renewables is a very good option because Inner Mongolia not only has very abundant coal reserves, but also its wind and solar resources are very abundant. So Inner Mongolia could really be a role model for these coal-mining provinces to lead to a more low-carbon economy.”
At the COP26 conference, Sharma had hoped that the developing and emerging world, including big-coal users like China, India and Indonesia, would end their use of the fossil fuel by 2040. While an end date on coal in Asia is not in sight, there is some movement.
After an announcement that the US, UK and EU would help South Africa fund its coal transition, Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said her country was looking for a similar deal. Indonesia is the seventh biggest coal user in the world and relies on it heavily for power. It is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal by volume.
The expectation is that developed countries, which have already industrialized and contributed the most to the climate crisis, would go first, by 2030.
But they’re not all there yet.
Australia approves new mines
Australia’s delegation went to the COP26 talks in Glasgow with the weakest climate plans of all the G20’s developed nations. It has no clear end date on coal and its government has said it plans to keep mining and exporting the fossil fuel well beyond 2030.
The country makes more money than any other nation from exporting coal from its roughly 100 mines, and it has the highest proportion of coal in its energy mix of all the developed G20 nations, at 54%, according to climate and energy think tank Ember.
As long as countries like China demand huge volumes of coal, Australia’s government has made clear it will keep supplying them. Australia makes around $50 billion annually in coal exports and the industry directly employs around 50,000 Australians, government data shows. The country approved three new mines recently in the space of a month.
The real perk for the Australian government is that all the coal it exports isn’t counted in the country’s official greenhouse gas emissions levels. UN rules say that a country’s emissions are based on the fossil fuels they burn, not the ones they dig up and sell offshore.
“Our coal is the world’s best. People want it. Countries need it. Self-interest will come first every time,” says Joel Fitzgibbon, who has represented Australia’s Hunter Region in the federal parliament since 1996.
Fitzgibbon is a member of the Australian opposition Labor Party, but he, too, believes that coal has a decades-long future in the country and can even continue to be mined and used without compromising a promise by Australia to reach net zero 2050 – where the country would not emit any more greenhouse gas than it removes.
Tim Baxter, a senior researcher at the Australian Climate Council, which is independent of the government, dismissed Fitzgibbon’s reckoning: “It’s at odds with the advice of every serious authority on the topic, including the historically-conservative International Energy Agency (IEA), which stated in its Net Zero 2050 pathway in May this year that achieving net zero requires that no new coal, oil or gas projects of any kind are developed anywhere in the world from now,” Baxter told CNN.
Some 12,000 people in Fitzgibbon’s electorate are directly employed by the coal industry, earning average salaries north of 100,000 Australian dollars ($75,000) a year.
“I think the benefits of the industry far outweigh any negative effects it has on the local community,” Fitzgibbon said.
The lush Australian Hunter Valley feels like one of the last places on Earth that should have a coal mine. This part of the country is known for its world-famous wines, and attracts tourists from all around the world. On weekends, it is teeming with Sydney residents, who make the two-hour drive north to escape the city and enjoy the region’s vineyards, restaurants and farms selling organic produce.
The Hunter, as Australians call the region, is also on a front line of the climate crisis. It was devastated by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, an event that scientists have linked to climate change.
But the way Fitzgibbon sees it, Australia is doing the world a climate favor by exporting coal.
“If we were to stop sending thermal coal to Asia tomorrow it would be replaced by something less efficient and would add to, not subtract from, global emissions,” he said.
There may be some truth to that. Different types of coal can emit different amounts of carbon dioxide. But climate scientists say the world needs to end its use altogether, and there’s little point in arguing which type of coal is “cleaner” than another.
The idea that the coal industry’s benefits outweigh the drawbacks in this region is also debatable. Parts of Bulga are being swallowed up by its coal mine and it has been transformed to something of a sleepy town. Yancoal, the Chinese company that now owns the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine there, has bought up the properties its operations have encroached on, even the local café.
“We were driven out by coal,” said former Bulga resident Robert McLaughlin. He is at least thankful that he could sell his home to Yancoal in 2019, and pack up and move to another town.
“We were torn when we left,” he said. “We felt like we were abandoning our friends.”
In a statement sent to CNN, Yancoal said its operations had full government approval and it had honored its obligations to those it bought land from.
“This does not constitute harm to the community,” the company said, adding that it had bought the local service station and local tavern, and leased them out to preserve the village amenities.
But not everyone has been able to move. On the outskirts of the tiny Hunter town of Bulga, trees that separate resident John Krey’s home from the mine remain charred almost two years after the Black Summer fires.
This year alone he has received nearly 100 text messages from the state of New South Wales’ Environmental Protection Agency, alerting him that PM10 levels – which are linked to asthma, lung disease and cancer – have reached unsafe levels.
Yancoal acknowledges that dust, air quality, noise and lighting from mines are key concerns in Bulga, but it said it was taking measures necessary to reduce pollution, and that air quality-related complaints were dropping.
Krey has spent years campaigning against the expansion of open-cut mines in the Hunter Valley, but he now feels like it’s a lost cause.
“We’ve got enough coal here to satisfy whatever the demand is, and yet we’re giving approval to open more mines,” Krey says from his veranda, overlooking the grey of Mount Thorley.
“I think the world will push Australia into doing the right thing,” he said, referring to the COP26 climate summit.
“But it’s too late for us here.”
The final frontiers
Data from the IEA shows that coal is still the most widely used source for electricity, and by a huge margin. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit the world, around 63% of worldwide electricity generation came from coal, gas and oil. Coal accounted for nearly 10 million gigawatt hours of energy – about 160% more than energy derived from the next biggest source, natural gas (another fossil fuel), which generated just over 6 million GWh. Hydropower came next (around 4 million GWh). Wind was 1 million GWh and solar just 680,000 GWh.
“I don’t like to be pessimistic but it’s important to be factual. And coal consumption is at least close to an all-time high,” Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the IEA, told CNN.
“I want to be optimistic, but we will have to see how the technology evolves – we are gaining on efficiencies, reducing the cost of every useful technology.”
He added that investment in renewables was increasing and capacity was growing, but they need to move much faster to meet a timeline of phasing out coal by 2040 globally.
“We can’t phase out coal if we can’t replace it, otherwise we’re talking about a lack of energy, and that’s poverty,” Alvarez said. “So leaders need to look to clean energy, to accelerate investment and help the developing world make a green transition.”
Beyond electricity, however, there are some heavy-industry sectors where coal is at the moment near impossible to replace. Steelmaking and cement production, for example, are made from burning coking coal, which has a very high carbon content, and can’t yet be replaced with energy like solar and wind. The emissions from steelmaking and cement production in China alone are higher than the European Union’s total CO2 emissions, IEA data shows.
Green hydrogen – which is made by electrolyzing water using renewable energy – may be an alternative, but it is still not widely available at scale. A deal on green steel at Glasgow recognizes its potential and aims to kick-start rapid global investment into the energy source and machines needed to produce it.
In Austria, near the city of Graz, energy company Verbund is experimenting with green hydrogen at its natural gas power plant. The Mellach plant is a symbol of Austria’s rapid energy transition and what is possible – the plant sits on the site of what was the country’s last coal-fired power plant, which shut its doors last year.
The gas plant’s main role is to stabilize the national grid, but Verbund hopes its plant can increase its share of the renewable source in its energy mix. Austria aims to run fully on renewables, for electricity at least, by 2030.
The idea is that on windy or sunny days, excess renewable electricity can be harnessed here to produce green hydrogen gas, which can then be stored or transported for later use. When it’s cloudy or when the turbines aren’t spinning so well, hydrogen can be converted back into electricity using a clean chemical reaction.
“Climate change is reality, so we have to make a massive move towards renewables,” said Michael Strugl, chief executive of Verbund.
“We do not have all the answers,” Strugl said. “We have to do research, we have to put strong efforts on innovation as well. But what we know is that we need this net-zero strategy in order to save the planet.”
CNN’s Martha Zhou and Natalie Thomas contributed to this report.