We’re still a long way from ditching coal

Brandon Pytel
Apr 15 · 3 min read

The world can’t quit coal.

Last year, China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, generated over half the Planet’s coal-fired power — that’s up nearly 10% from half a decade ago. The country has also committed to building hundreds of gigawatts more coal power, outpacing the rest of the world combined.

But it’s not just China. Mexico, India, and Africa are all doubling down on coal use, too. And though many large nations are ramping up renewable power sources, it’s not enough to avoid the worst climate impacts.

“Progress is nowhere near fast enough,” Dave Jones, a power analyst at Ember, told Axios. “Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees [Celsius].”

So, what’s going on? Despite knowing how dirty coal is, several factors still prevent a full-scale dethroning of King Coal.

Sunset over a coal plant. Photo credit: vxla/Flickr

For one, climate action requires international cooperation, something that’s hard to come by, especially given the recent riffs between the U.S. and China. We need all players on board to keep pressure on those not doing enough.

In a new opinion article, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued that Japan, China, and South Korea must work together to drive the transition from coal in East Asia. Should large economies like these lead, others will follow suit.

At the same time, countries have largely failed to connect talk with action. Though China has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060, in its recent five-year plan, the country said it would continue increasing coal production through 2025.

India is talking a similar game, flirting with a net-zero goal, while simultaneously launching the biggest auction of coal mines in the country. And Australia, a leading exporter of coal (much of it to China), has yet to figure out how to reverse course and tackle what could become a shitload of stranded assets.

Meanwhile, many of these targets aren’t even impressive. A recent U.N. report finds that even if many countries delivered on their recent climate goals, global emissions would decrease a mere 1% by 2030.

Then there’s climate diplomacy. Throughout the industrial era, Western countries generated the lion’s share of emissions. Any recent emissions by developing countries are still only a sliver of a fraction of historical output by countries that have boosted their economies on coal.

The argument goes that if developed countries increased their GDP with such moves, then developing nations should be allowed to as well.

“Energy poverty is a key concern when it comes to many developing countries,” NJ Ayuk, executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber, told Deutsche Welle. “Coal — in some countries that have it — is in abundance, efficient, and convenient.”

Developed nations, already amid transition, have no excuse. But even then, nationalism and nostalgia are tough to shake. For example, fossil fuels have given both the U.S. and Mexico energy independence. Divorcing themselves from that history — even by more viable, less expensive options like wind energy — is no easy task.

This mixed-bag, slow transition from coal won’t cut it. Just last week, the Planet’s atmospheric CO2 hit 421 parts per million, halfway to double the pre-industrial average. For a Planet on the verge of a climate catastrophe, shaking coal as fast as possible is the only way forward.

But when it comes to climate action, it’s never that simple.

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Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

Brandon Pytel

Written by

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

Planet Days

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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