The global energy crisis caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed global demand for coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – to a record high in 2022, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Friday.
Demand for coal is set to grow 1.2% and top 8 billion metric tons for the first time ever this year, the IEA said in the latest edition of its annual coal report. This record comes only a year after countries agreed to phase down their use of coal at the United Nations’ climate conference in Glasgow.
The growth is mostly down to a rapid rise in the prices of natural gas and other fuels, which has forced some countries and regions to turn to coal as a cheaper alternative.
Coal is the world’s largest source of energy for electricity generation and the production of steel and cement. But it is also the biggest single contributor to the climate crisis, accounting for around 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use.
“Europe – and the European Union in particular – has been one of the regions hardest hit by the energy crisis, given its reliance on Russian pipeline supplies of natural gas,” the report said, adding that technical problems in French nuclear power plants made the problem even worse.
To keep the lights on, Europe turned back to coal – even switching some of its recently closed coal power plants back on.
Pieter de Pous, who leads the Fossil Fuel Transition Program at E3G, a climate think tank, told CNN the growth in coal use was a U-turn, coming “at the end of a decade that saw coal use cut in half.”
The IEA said that while the increase in coal consumption was relatively modest in most European countries, Germany saw a reversal of a “significant scale.”
That has put the EU, which has positioned itself as a global climate leader, into an uncomfortable position, with some criticizing European countries like Germany for only pursuing the green agenda when it suits them. Germany and the EU have pushed back on that idea, stressing the U-turn was only temporary and that the bloc has significantly ramped up its investment into renewable energy.
The IEA expects the EU’s coal use to drop 29% by 2025 compared to 2022, de Pous said. “This will be the result of action taken in as many as 19 EU countries to accelerate renewables,” he added.
China, which accounts for more than half of global coal consumption, also ramped up its use of coal earlier this year, when the worst heatwave and drought in six decades hit its hydroelectricity production.
In August alone, coal power generation in China increased by around 15% compared to the same period last year, the IEA said, to a level of generation that was higher than the total annual coal power generation of any other country, except India and the United States.
Richard Black, a senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a climate advisory group, said that despite the increase in China’s use of coal, the long term direction for coal in China and India – another major coal user – was clear.
“Renewables are going to be providing an increasing share of the generation and the role of coal is going to transition from being a baseload fuel to being a backup,” he said.
“The science suggests that a country such as China ought to have eliminated unabated coal use by 2040 and ideally earlier than that,” he said. “That’s absolutely feasible. As with Europe, if there is a short term increase in coal use, that’s not necessarily a disaster. The key thing is going to be to build out transmission capacity, build out energy storage, keep on making energy use more efficient, and to provide alternatives for the workers in the places where coal mining is a big employer so that there’s a socially just transition.”
‘Peak in fossil fuel use’
The IEA forecasts that global coal consumption will remain flat at the current level to 2025 as falls in some countries are offset by continued strong demand in emerging Asian economies. Although there are global moves to help big coal producing countries transition off the fossil fuel. This week, Vietnam agreed to a $15.5 billion climate-financing deal with leaders from G7 industrialized nations to move away from coal, which followed a recent $20 billion funding deal for Indonesia to increase clean energy and phase out coal.
“The world is close to a peak in fossil fuel use, with coal set to be the first to decline, but we are not there yet,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA’s director of energy markets and security, said in a press release.
Earlier this year, the IEA said CO2 emissions from coal power generation were forecast to grow by more than 200 million tons, or 2%, this year. It said that investment into new fossil fuels infrastructure must stop immediately if the world wants any chance of achieving net zero by 2050.
The latest climate science shows that achieving net zero by the mid-century is necessary to keep temperatures from rising well above 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial times. Beyond that threshold, the world will face climate crisis impacts that could take millennia to correct, or could be irreversible altogether.