Climate graphic of the week: Will the world phase down coal within 8 years?

The UN COP27 kept in place a pledge to accelerate the phase-down of polluting coal power and invest in renewable energy, but the expansion of China’s coal fleet continues to be a counterweight on global efforts, the latest International Energy Agency report has warned.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy are on track to rise 1 per cent to reach 37.5bn tonnes in 2022, with the biggest increases coming from India and the US, according to data from the Global Carbon Project, a coalition of international climate science bodies.

This followed a rise in coal use after gas supplies were cut because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the IEA warns that there remains a risk the energy crisis could spark “a new readiness to approve coal-fired power plants”.

About half of the 100 financial institutions that had supported coal-related projects since 2010 had not made any commitments to restrict such financing, the IEA report found.

IEA executive director Fatih Birol said that while there was encouraging momentum towards expanding clean energy in many governments’ policy responses to the current energy crisis, “a major unresolved problem is how to deal with the massive amount of existing coal assets worldwide”.

The world must move more quickly to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal significantly in order to avoid severe impacts from climate change, it said.

This would require “massive financing for clean energy alternatives to coal and to ensure secure, affordable and fair transitions, especially in emerging and developing economies”.

Last week, a coalition of countries led by the US and Japan announced it would marshal $20bn of public and private finance to help Indonesia shut coal power plants and bring forward its peak emissions date by seven years to 2030.

The Indonesian deal follows a similar $8.5bn package for South Africa, and arrangements with India and Vietnam have been mooted.

But the entire coal sector must shift to net zero emissions by 2050 to “give the world an even chance of limiting global warming to the critical threshold of 1.5C”, the IEA said.

“Coal is both the single biggest source of CO₂ emissions from energy and the single biggest source of electricity generation worldwide, which highlights the harm it is doing to our climate and the huge challenge of replacing it rapidly while ensuring energy security,” Birol said.

Complicating any shift is the varying age profile of the world’s 9,000 coal power plants. These range from an average of more than 40 years in the US to less than 15 years in developing economies in Asia.

If operated for typical lifetimes, the existing worldwide coal-fired fleet, excluding under construction plants, would emit more than the historical emissions to date of all coal plants that have ever operated, the IEA said.

For current national climate pledges to be met on time and in full, however, output from existing global unabated coal-fired plants, or those without the technology to trap carbon emissions, would need to fall by about one-third between 2021 and 2030, with 75 per cent of it replaced by solar and wind.

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