“There shouldn’t be any more coal fired power plants permitted anywhere in the world,” U.S. Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry for Climate said earlier this week at the COP28 climate change conference in Dubai.
Kerry’s comments highlight the reality of coal power in the modern world. While debate rages on over the usefulness of oil and gas-based products and energy systems, coal appears to be dying a silent, yet definitive death in the West.
In the International Energy Agency’s prediction of peak global fossil fuel consumption by 2030, published in October 2023, coal is projected to be the first of the three major fossil fuel sources to begin a negative trend into eventual obscurity.
Two years ago, a handful of leading nations, including the U.S. and China, signed a pledge at COP26 in Glasgow to entirely phase out coal power by the middle of the 21st century. Now, experts believe that this mark is closer in sight than previously predicted, as coal’s role in power grids across the world is replaced by energy systems reliant on low-carbon and carbon-free alternatives.
“Coal power will likely peak this year, as wind and solar will meet future electricity demand growth,” Dave Jones, insights leader at Ember, a non-profit global energy think tank based in London, told International Business Times this week.
Solar And Wind Are Killing Coal
After rising by 33% between 2004 and 2014, global coal consumption remained completely unchanged from 2014 to 2022, according to data collected by Our World In Data. Combined global power capacity from wind energy (onshore and offshore) and solar energy (photovoltaic and thermal) increased by nearly three-fold (289%) over that same period of 2014-2022.
“Solar and wind are increasingly the preferred new power generation investment: In 2022, more than 80% of new capacity was from renewables, largely driven by solar and wind,” a group of analysts from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an energy-focused consultancy, told IBT on Thursday.
Booming investment in solar and wind power facilities has been accompanied by substantial government commitments to transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources, which experts claim has accelerated coal’s global demise.
“Government commitments to coal phaseout or net-zero power sector emissions now cover 95% of global coal consumption,” RMI said, noting that the majority of remaining coal consumption not covered by phaseout commitments are located in the Global South.
“Countries like Chile, the Netherlands and Australia have shown how ramping up solar and wind can replace coal and cut emissions fast,” Jones told IBT.
Still, while coal’s usage may finally be at its zenith globally, efforts to replace existing coal power capacity have differed across major emitting countries in terms of both scope and success.
While US representatives have seemingly written off the future of coal, China continues to add new coal capacity — the country has 243 GW of power capacity currently permitted or under construction — accounting for over 50% of newly-added global coal emissions since 2000.
“China is close to peaking coal power but has yet to articulate how quickly it aims to reduce it,” according to Jones.
Chinese officials claim that this new capacity will not necessarily translate into new power generation and carbon emissions. Newly-constructed coal plants are designed to function as a backup to solar and wind power facilities, the construction of which has also proceeded at an exponential rate in China in the previous decade.
“We need to do more than peak: the world needs rapid falls in coal power. Tripling global renewables capacity would help bend the curve on emissions,” Jones told IBT.
The tripling of renewable energy capacity that Jones referenced is a proposal currently under discussion at COP28 to boost investment in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable sources three-fold by 2030.
Major nations’ commitment to tripling investment would be substantial for the renewables sector. But considering that global renewable capacity already grew by 289% from 2014 to 2022, such a goal may be even conservative.
With each passing year, the window of profitability for large-scale coal power plants narrows as major nations’ energy supplies become increasingly composed of renewable resources.
U.S. coal consumption was down 56% in 2022 relative to 2000; coal now accounts for 10% of the nation’s total energy supply, compared to 24% in 2000.