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Global Progress on Phasing Out Coal in 2022 Weighed Down by China

Despite the energy crisis sparked by the Ukraine war, a phasing out of coal continued across the world in 2022, according to a new report by the NGO Global Energy Monitor. Everywhere except China, where new coal production capacity under development increased, offsetting the gains in the rest of the world.

With the spring comes a rare bit of good news in the fight against climate change. In a study published this week, Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based NGO, reported that in 2022, global efforts to phase out coal, one of the most climate-damaging energy sources, continued. The “coal comeback” fears, sparked by the fallout and disruptions of last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, did not come to pass in the end.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad: China bucked the global trend. Worse, China’s new coal plant additions last year offset the coal plant shutdowns in the rest of the world.

In its annual report on coal production, “Boom and Bust Coal 2023”, Global Energy Monitor recorded progress everywhere in the world – except China. The number of coal-fired power plants in operation has decreased worldwide and these include retiring or converting coal plants in countries such as Peru and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

According to the study, no new coal-fired projects are under consideration in the European Union, North America or North Africa. In the Middle East, the report noted that the Tabas plant under construction in Iran could be “the region’s last new coal plant”.

The US tops the list of good performers: its coal-fired power generation fell by 13.5 gigawatts (GW). That’s half of the global decline, estimated at 26 GW by 2022.

Limited use of coal in the EU

The EU, on the other hand, recorded a decrease of only 2.2 GW. This is a low figure compared to 2021, when it reached a record retirement of 14.6 GW.

The gas crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted seven countries to authorise the restarting or operation of coal-fired power plants. These include Germany and Austria, as well as the Netherlands, which reversed a law limiting the operation of power plants to 35% of their capacity.

France, on the other hand, restarted production at the Emile-Huchet power plant in the eastern Moselle region. In total, 26 coal-fired power plants in the EU that were already shut down or scheduled to be closed finally operated during the winter, according to Global Energy Monitor figures.

“It was a question of prioritising energy security, in a context of shortage fears,” explained Nicolas Berghmans, lead European affairs and energy and climate expert at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). “But in the end, these 20 or so power plants were little used and the ‘coal comeback’ that was feared did not take place.”

But while the worst did not come to pass, there were plenty of energy challenges last year, noted Berghmans. “After a historic summer drought, hydroelectricity capacities were limited and, in France, we were facing the shutdown of several of our nuclear reactors,” he explained. “The damage was limited thanks to energy saving measures that worked well, helped by a mild winter. They have reduced energy consumption both in gas and electricity during the winter,” he said.

“Beyond the results for 2022, this shows that coal is no longer considered the first response in case of crisis,” said Berghmans. “In the EU moreover, this has mostly led to a surge in investments in renewable energy, and while this was not very noticeable in 2022, it will be felt in the coming years. This is very encouraging.”

China bucks the tide

But in stark contrast to this promising trend in many parts of the world, China moved against the tide, darkening the global picture. “China’s steady new coal plant additions (26.8 GW) offset coal plant retirements in the rest of the world (23.9 GW) in 2022,” said Global Energy Monitor.

China now has 365 GW of generating capacity, compared to an average of 172 GW elsewhere. More alarmingly, China alone now accounts for 68% of coal-related projects under development worldwide, and 72% of those are in the pipeline.

“Because of its size and population, China’s energy consumption is necessarily very high,” explained Thibaud Voïta, a researcher at the Center for Energy and Climate at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). “One of the major challenges for Beijing is to meet the energy demand that has been constantly increasing for several years.”

It was a challenge that was particularly hard to meet in 2022 due to gas price rises linked to the Ukraine war, the post-Covid economic recovery as well as repeated heat waves. The long spell of extreme hot and dry weather, that scientists called “the most severe” ever recorded in the world, led to massive use of air conditioning. This in turn saw electricity consumption soaring when hydroelectric capacity was at its lowest.

“To a certain extent, this surge is beyond Beijing’s control and is rather the work of local or provincial authorities,” said Voïta. “Developing coal-fired power plants is still seen by many as the best solution to meet short-term demand while guaranteeing the population the lowest possible electricity prices.”

This saw annual coal capacity additions for many Chinese provinces topping the capacity additions for entire countries. Citing the example of the northern Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the report noted that, “Inner Mongolia (6 GW) surpassed India (3.5 GW) despite India being the country with the most coal commissioned in 2022 after China. In fact, Inner Mongolia nearly had more new capacity than the next two countries after China combined (India and Japan).”

China’s bleak record however must be qualified, according to Voïta. “In 2019, coal accounted for 57.7% of China’s energy mix. In 2022, it will be 56.2%. We are therefore on a downward trend,” he noted. “Not to mention that in parallel, China is investing massively in renewable energies. They represented, with nuclear, 15.3% of the energy mix in 2019. This share has climbed to 17.4% in 2022 and the goal is to reach 20% by 2025.” That’s some reason for hope.

Zero coal target by 2040

“Today, nearly one-third of operating global coal capacity (580 GW) has a phase out date, and much of the remaining capacity (1,400 GW) is under the purview of carbon neutrality targets,” noted the report, making it a “a reality completely unthinkable a decade ago”.

Despite these advances, the pace of the global coal phase-out remains incompatible with the goal of the Paris Agreement. In order to limit global temperature rise to well to below 2°C, all existing power plants should be closed by 2030 in developed countries and by 2040 in the rest of the world.

Berghmans would like to believe the 2030 objective “remains achievable” in the EU. “On one condition: continue the massive deployment of renewable energies, this is really key,” he stressed.

“But whatever the global efforts, China will play a decisive role,” said Voïta. “Beijing has stated, on the international scene, that it wants to peak its emissions in 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. The only way for it to achieve this goal is to give up coal. It must now agree to start this process as soon as possible.”

Source : France24