Coal's 2021 Comeback

Coal’s 2021 Comeback

Up until 2021, it seemed coal was on the way out. From 2005 to 2020, the amount of power generated by coal plants in the US halved and greenhouse gas emissions dropped 22.2%. But a new report by the Rhodium Group shows coal and overall emissions are on the rise once again.

Per the report, although overall power demand remained relatively stable in 2021, coal generation rose 17% and emissions nearly rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, increasing by 6.2%. According to the US Energy Information Administration, this is the first annual increase in coal since 2014.

Why This Matters

The US is not the only country that saw a substantial increase in the world's dirtiest fuel source over the past year. China has also increased coal consumption and Germany continues to permit coal excavation despite its commitment to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2038.

The global dependency on coal was also reflected in the commitments made (and not made) at COP26. While over 40 countries agreed to "phase down unabated coal," many of the most coal-reliant countries were not signatories. Although some action has been taken, such as the US pledging to stop financing fossil fuel plants abroad, the world has a long way to go when it comes to phasing out coal and limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Union of Concerned Scientists: Everything to Know About Coal (in Under 3 Minutes), January 4, 2018.

Why the Rise?

The recent rise in coal can be largely attributed to the significant increase in oil and gas prices. As oil and gas becomes more expensive, utilities are falling back on coal rather than renewables. In the words of one of the report's authors, Kate Larsen, as quoted in Grist: "the progress we've made over the past couple of decades is at the whims of energy markets."

This means that the spike in coal use may be a short-term phenomenon, but even so, it could spell disaster for the climate. Larsen states that unless strong federal policy is implemented to cut emissions and promote renewables, "we don't have a backstop to prevent this from happening."

Sky News: What you need to know about coal, November 4, 2021.