Policymakers who met this fall in Glasgow, Scotland for the UN Climate Conference, also known as COP26, made an earnest attempt at collective action in the fight against global warming. Of note, a number of the participating nations signed a pledge to completely eliminate the use of coal. Yet for all the self-congratulating by its signatories, the pledge received ample criticism for not going far enough. The criticism warrants a closer look.
Stakeholders in the fight against climate change have had their sights set on coal for decades. One of the oldest forms of fuel for the world, it is also one of the dirtiest. Coal emits a myriad of toxins and pollutants when it is burned, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, mercury, and ash. It also emits massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent greenhouse gas.
Coal is not the lone culprit. Other fuels also emit CO2, but none as much. In quantifiable terms, coal emits over 200 pounds of CO2 per million British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy—a standard unit of measurement—that is generated when it is burned. The next closest by comparison are diesel fuel and heating oil, which emit 163 pounds of CO2 per million BTU they generate. Further down on the list are other common fossil fuels, including gasoline, propane, and natural gas.
Why is this relevant? For over a century, since the early years after the Industrial Revolution, coal has been a global fuel source. While a number of factors have contributed to a decline in the overall use of coal, it is still consumed on a massive scale.
Coal emits over 200 pounds of CO2 per million British Thermal Unit of energy that is generated when it is burned. The next closest by comparison are diesel fuel and heating oil, which emit 163 pounds of CO2 per million BTU generated.
It is important to note that coal is not the world’s biggest polluter. That distinction falls to petroleum, otherwise known as oil, consumed in the transportation sector (think exhaust belching cars and trucks).
Although it has many uses, coal is burned mostly to generate electricity. This is also where much of the decline in the consumption of coal has occurred. Other sources of fuel, such as renewables and natural gas, have grown enough to eclipse coal as the dominant fuel in the electricity sector. However, of all the fuels consumed for this purpose, coal is the dirtiest, and it is largely responsible for making the electricity sector as dirty as it is.
Here are some figures to put this characterization into perspective: According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2020, the electric power sector accounted for about 38% of total U.S. primary energy consumption and about 32% of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. Coal accounted for 54% of the CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. Natural gas accounted for most of the rest.
Getting Beyond Coal Is a Global Challenge
Despite its ill effects, getting rid of coal’s massive global footprint is no easy task. It is inexpensive and plentiful. In 2020, the world consumed more than 8 billion tons of coal. China accounted for more than half of that total, consuming more than 4 billion tons. India and the United States occupy the second and third spots on this list, consuming close to one billion and a half billion tons, respectively. These numbers have remained relatively unchanged for the last ten years.
Why do nations like China, India, and the US rely so heavily on this dirty fuel? Coal has a number of advantages over other fuels in the production of electricity, which these nations need to fuel their booming economies. Because coal is so vital and so entrenched, transitioning to alternative fuels without disrupting industry, manufacturing, business, and the economy is a complicated process.
The world produces about 8 billion tons of coal annually, roughly the same amount it consumes. The global coal mining industry is the world’s second-largest mining industry by market size.
Coal mining and production is also big business. The world produces about 8 billion tons of coal annually, roughly the same amount it consumes. The global coal mining industry is the world’s second-largest mining industry by market size. It is also a major employer, with millions of people working in some capacity to mine, produce, and transport coal around the world.
The same big users of coal are also large exporters and importers of the fuel. In this category, too, China, India, and the US top the list. Again, China accounts for almost half of the total, producing nearly 3.8 billion tons of coal.
Of course, with such a large footprint, the industry has clout, and its influence on policymakers is not to be overlooked.
Taking all these factors together, coal is a difficult habit for some countries to break.
COP26 Pledge Directly Targets Future Coal Use
Despite the challenges that it presents, many countries have taken the bold step of weaning themselves off coal. At COP26, participating countries announced major breakthroughs.
For example, the UK, which presided over the conference, said that at least 23 new countries joined a commitment at the conference to phase out and not build or invest in new coal power over the next few decades, bringing the number of signatory countries up to 190. According to the UK government, the so-called “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement” will commit the signing nations to:
end all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally,
rapidly scale up deployment of clean power generation,
phase out coal power in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world, and
make a just transition away from coal power in a way that benefits workers and communities.
Additionally at the conference, 25 countries signed a pledge to end public financing of overseas oil, gas, and coal projects by the end of 2022. Signatories include the US, UK, Denmark, Canada, Italy, and the European Investment Bank.
Lastly, at the close of the conference, the participating nations signed a pledge, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, which contained a number of shared goals to address climate change. Specifically, Section IV Mitigation, Item 20, calls upon the parties to accelerate the transition towards clean energy. This includes “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
The pact is significant for a number of reasons. It marks the first time the negotiating parties have specifically mentioned coal and other fossil fuels, and in doing so, they established target dates for eliminating their use. On the other hand, the language was modified and mollified in a way that many observers felt will slow progress toward the ultimate goal, which is a zero-emission or carbon free energy environment. In particular, the pledge had originally called for the “phase-out” of coal, but at the last minute, India negotiated for the words “phase-down.”
Coal-Free Nations Offer Hope for More Change
While some countries may appear to be dragging their feet, there are real world examples of nations that have accomplished a complete divorce from coal. For example, the UK has seen its use of coal drop to levels not seen since before the Industrial Revolution, and the government has announced its intentions to completely phase-out the use of coal by the year 2025.
Other countries have made similar progress. Four European nations—Belgium, Sweden, Austria, and Portugal—have already achieved the goal of being coal-free by shutting down their last operating coal-fired facilities.
A handful of nations have gone even further. Iceland is the only nation in the world to be powered entirely by renewable energy. Nearly 100% of its energy consumption is derived from hydropower and geothermal energy.
Two nations have even gone beyond the global standard of carbon neutrality. Bhutan and Suriname are the only countries in the world to be considered carbon negative. They capture more carbon from the atmosphere than their economies and industries emit.
Each nation is unique. A myriad of circumstances has helped these achieve their goals. A country’s size, economy, culture, and availability of resources combine with national level policies to help them reach these remarkable milestones. Not all their actions can be replicated by other nations, but their examples demonstrate what can be done.
China, India, US: Key to Changing the Global Coal Industry
When it comes to global movements, all eyes are on the biggest nations. They are expected to lead the world by their example. When China, India, and the US did not sign onto the most impactful pledges of COP26, their actions elicited complaints.
For example, the smaller nations of the world are vulnerable to the effects of the larger nations’ energy consumption patterns. The effects of climate change have a devastating impact on these small countries, many of which are situated in geographically sensitive locations. Floods, wildfires, and rising seas have become an existential threat, and their small, underdeveloped economies do not have the means or the power to reverse these trends. For their very survival, they are dependent on the larger nations to take bold steps.
As nations follow through on their commitments to end their use of coal, worldwide demand for the fuel will diminish. This will lead to a contraction of the coal export industries in China, India, and the US.
Frank Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of Fiji, put this dynamic into perspective. He described the pledges made at the conference as “insufficient commitments.” He added that “the developed nations are failing us.”
China, India, and the US may have left other nations wanting more, but their inaction is not the last word on efforts to rid the world of coal. Political pressure will continue, and the nations participating in COP26 agreed to continue to meet and discuss further action. As nations follow through on their commitments to end their use of coal, worldwide demand for the fuel will diminish. This will lead to a contraction of the coal export industries in China, India, and the US.
Commitments to end the production of coal will also impact the ability of the three nations to import coal. Every year, China, India, and the US import about 300 million tons, 20 million tons, and 69 million tons of coal, respectively.
Lastly, there is still hope for future agreements. Although they did not sign onto the COP26 pledge, at the conference, the US and China announced their own separate agreement. According to the US Climate Envoy, John Kerry, the agreement commits both nations to work to use their “best efforts to phase down unabated coal in this decade as fast as is achievable.”
International agreements notwithstanding, it is also important to note that the US coal industry has been shrinking for years. Competition from natural gas and renewables and policies designed to cut carbon emissions have combined to help shrink consumption and production. The coal industry peaked in 2007, when the U.S. consumed 1.1 billion tons of coal. In 2020, consumption had dropped to 477 million tons.
This trend preceded the conference in Glasgow, and if the past is an indicator, the trend will continue.
*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.