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The Ruling Elite Consigned Coal To History. Instead, Its Use Is Soaring

coal terminal ship

Last November in Glasgow, the world’s climate leaders were locked in a fierce debate over whether the final draft of the summit’s agreement should include a pledge to “phase-out” or “phase-down” coal.

Since then, the more appropriate term would probably be “phase-up.”

Even as the globe is battered by floods, droughts, and storms caused by climate change, the fuel that contributes most to planet-warming emissions is undergoing a renaissance. [bold, links added]

Global coal power generation could set a record for a second straight year and remains the world’s biggest source of electricity.

Consumption has surged in Europe to replace shortfalls in hydro, nuclear, and Russian gas, while top producer China is extracting record volumes from mines to insulate itself from volatile global energy markets.

Prices of exported coal have skyrocketed to records and futures contracts suggest they’ll remain at historic highs for years to come.

And while plans for spending on new mines and power plants are a fraction of what they were a few years ago, that companies are still investing in new projects at all is alarming to climate scientists who say the fuel needs to be phased out by 2040 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

As politicians and activists gather in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh this weekend to consolidate the work of Glasgow, Paris, and other past COP summits, coal’s resilience demonstrates the mountain the world still needs to climb. …snip…

For coal titans who’ve grown accustomed to being a punching bag for environmentalists, this year has not only been profitable but also a rare and welcome chance to remind the world of the value of the cheap and reliable energy they provide.

“Decarbonization is necessary, but it must take place in a responsible and coordinated way and we continue to maintain that this is a journey that will take decades, not years,” Mark Vaile, chairman of Australian miner Whitehaven Coal Ltd. said at an Oct. 26 investor meeting, after the producer posted record annual earnings this year. “Traditional energy sources like coal are critical to providing a reliable baseload of energy.” …snip…

In order for the world to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency says coal power plants need to be eliminated in developed nations by 2030 and in the rest of the world by 2040.

And yet hundreds of billions of dollars are forecast to be invested in new coal assets through the middle of the century, and key nations like China and India are forging ahead with plans to roll out vast new power plant capacity.

Last year was supposed to be the beginning of the end for the dirty fuel. Consumption declined in both 2019 and 2020. Alok Sharma, president of the United Nations-led COP26 climate conference, spent the year urging world leaders to “consign coal to history” when they met in Glasgow in November.

Instead, a strong industrial rebound from the pandemic drove coal consumption to a record.

Widespread power outages in the world’s top coal users China and India made leaders there double down on ensuring supplies of the fuel were available to keep their economies humming.

And in Scotland, a tearful Sharma apologized to delegates when a pledge to “phase-out” coal was changed to “phase-down” at the last minute, on the insistence of Beijing and New Delhi.

Things haven’t gotten much better this year. Coal power generation rose about 1% over the previous year through August, according to data from Ember. In Europe, it’s been needed to replace Russian gas to help overcome lower output from nuclear and hydropower.

In China, historic drought in July and August sapped reservoirs of its massive dams, requiring a surge in coal consumption to fill the void.

In the US, coal power plant retirements are being delayed and production of the fuel will increase by 3.5% this year as miners seek to meet surging demand from around the world and take advantage of record prices.

Read rest at Bloomberg


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