Global emissions poised to spiral as coal makes a comeback

Global emissions poised to spiral as coal makes a comeback

Global emissions poised to spiral as coal makes a comeback
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In 2021, the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose to their highest ever level of 36.3 billion tons, according to the International Energy Agency, citing the strong recovery in the global economy and the wider use of coal for power generation.

Coal accounted for more than 40 percent of the overall growth in carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, reaching an all-time high of 15.3 billion tons, the IEA added. It went on to say that coal production around the world was set to rise even further and reach its highest level ever in 2022.

The IEA says the use of coal for power generation had intensified due to record high natural gas prices, which meant the cost of power generation through coal in the US and many European nations was considerably lower than through gas. The switch from gas to coal led to an increase of 100 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions in these two regions.

As the IEA report was released in early March, it is safe to assume that it did not take into account the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 26 and led to a spiral in crude oil and gas prices. Brent crude, which had already risen from $78 per barrel on Dec. 31 to $97 on the eve of the invasion, shot up to a record $139 before leveling off at about $110 a barrel.

For Europe, this turned out to be a double whammy, as not only have crude oil and gas prices risen significantly, but it is also facing an unprecedented energy crisis due to the Ukraine conflict. Russia had threatened to turn the tap off on its gas supplies to Europe and last week went ahead and cut off supplies to Bulgaria and Poland.

The impact of high oil and gas prices is being felt even more severely in emerging market economies, which have been hit hard by the price rises as they have fueled general inflation and made them turn to coal in an even bigger way. For instance, in India, the second-largest consumer of coal in the world, consumption this year is set to reach an all-time high, after having also scaled a new high last year, when it jumped 8 percent to 1.05 billion tons.

Despite a rise in renewable energy production in the country, India’s consumption of coal is set to rise every year until 2030, reaching anywhere up to 1.5 billion tons, nearly 50 percent higher than the current level, the Indian coal minister said recently.

Most emerging economies are likely to burn more coal to meet their energy needs for the foreseeable future. 

Ranvir S. Nayar

However, India is not the only nation turning to coal. Most emerging economies are likely to burn more coal to meet their energy needs for the foreseeable future. It may also rise sharply in China, the largest consumer of coal in the world, later this year and next, once it overcomes the COVID-19 pandemic that has led to stringent and highly controversial lockdowns.

All this is terrible news for the battle against climate change and it comes less than a month after the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said the world continued to hurtle toward the abyss, as nations have repeatedly missed their commitments to cut emissions by a wide margin. The report so enraged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he accused world leaders of simply lying when making their commitments.

At this stage, one can only imagine the full impact of the rise in oil and gas prices on carbon dioxide emissions this year, but they are certain to hit a new record high — and not just due to the switch to coal. As has been the trend over the past few years due to climate change, large parts of the world, notably Africa and southern Asia, have seen record temperatures in searing heat waves that have lasted several weeks. India has just experienced its hottest March since records began 122 years ago. Such unprecedented and sustained heat waves have led to a jump in electricity consumption in many parts, leading to power cuts of up to 12 hours a day.

Besides leading to higher emissions due to the greater consumption of energy, the heat waves and higher prices have impacted the climate in another manner: A switch to cheaper, dirtier coal, whose use propels carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution even further. In many instances, power generation firms have switched to dirtier coal to save money, as using imported coal would have pushed up their production costs even more.

The switch to cheaper, dirtier domestic coal is also accelerating due to its ready availability, as utility companies struggle to keep adequate stocks. For instance, most coal-fired power plants in India last week reported running out of stocks, leading to power cuts. This led the government to tell power firms to increase their use of domestic coal, as imports would have taken longer, besides being more expensive.

It is too early to even estimate the real impact of these developments on carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, but it is certainly not going to be good news at the end of the year, when scientists and experts start collating data about emissions in 2022.

Unfortunately, there are no short-term solutions. The only thing the world can do is to put pressure on governments and business leaders to honor their commitments and put their money where their mouth is to invest in green energy-driven and energy-efficient economies. The heat waves are certain to become more intense and widespread, as well as prolonged, over the years. The only way to save the world is to go green — and right now.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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