Coal and Gas Expansion Could Send Climate Pledges Up in Smoke

Coal and Gas Expansion Could Send Climate Pledges Up in Smoke

A new study shows that coal companies are still expanding, even though coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Over half the companies analyzed in the study are developing more coal plants, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that coal-burning power could even to rise in 2022 after years of decline. Meanwhile, the US and many members of the EU have rolled back their commitments to ending their use of coal by 2030.

Bloomberg: Bloomberg Green | The Dangers of Methane Gas, October 11, 2021.

Bloomberg: Record Methane Levels Made 2021 5th Hottest Year Since 2000, January 10, 2022.

Why This Matters

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coal in particular began an unfortunate comeback, threatening clean energy progress globally.

Coal’s comeback started in 2021, when China's "standard coal equivalent of energy" grew by 5.2% from 2020, the most that it had grown in a decade. Coal generation also rose by 17% in the US, coupled with a 6.2% increase in emissions, rising to pre-pandemic levels. Germany also continues to permit coal excavation despite promising to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2038.

WION: Greenpeace | China ramping up approvals for new coal power plants, July 20, 2022.

DW: Germany reconsiders coal phase out due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, March 15, 2022.

FRANCE 24: Return to coal? Austria to reopen power station amid fears of Russian gas shortage, June 28, 2022.

Coal, though, is not the only problem. Natural gas, a favorite coal substitute, is made mostly of methane, and can cause temperature rise at 80x the rate of carbon when it leaks into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the US and many members of the EU plan to replace their coal-fired power plants with natural gas plants, a new study found. This could leave many of these countries unable to fulfill their pledges to lower methane emissions by 30%.

“Calling gas ‘clean’ or ‘green’ will never change the fact that it’s just as bad for the climate, and in some cases worse, than coal,” said Jenny Martos, a project manager at nonprofit energy organization Global Energy Monitor, in a press release.

Still, Cheniere Energy Inc., the largest liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter in the US, requested the Biden Administration to temporarily waive limits on cancer-causing pollution. New methane plants, including ones like Cheniere’s, could, in one year, emit as much as much as  18 million cars. Worse, we may already emit more than we realize. A new study from the IEA found that the energy sector could be underreporting their methane emissions by as much as 70%

Bloomberg: Europe Energy Crisis Drives US to Top Slot of LNG Exporters, April 25, 2022.

Keeping Climate Commitments

These expansions in fossil fuels represent a widespread reneging on global efforts to lower emissions. Last year, President Biden joined forces with the EU to create the Global Methane Pledge, a worldwide commitment to cut down methane emissions by 30%, but many new natural gas plants are in development.

WION: Embracing the ‘dirty fuel’ | Russia’s gas choke sends Europe back to coal, June 24, 2022.

This, plus the US and EU’s broken promise to halt coal burning by 2030, are bad signs. As the Global Coal Exit List 2022 put it: “According to the 2018 IPCC Report, coal-fired power generation needs to be reduced by 78% by 2030 in order to keep the 1.5°C goal within reach. Last year’s IEA report Net Zero by 2050 confirmed that there should be no new oil, coal or gas development.

Urgewald: The Global Oil and Gas Exit List, November 3, 2021.

Al Jazeera: What's the cost of Europe's shift back to coal? | Counting the Cost, August 27, 2022.

DW: Time is running out | WMO warns 1.5 degree threshold could be topped by 2026, May 18, 2022.

This research further confirms what we already know: we have to stop using fossil fuels, and fast. A study from earlier this year found that 40% of fossil fuels available for extraction must remain untouched to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

“Pursuing new coal projects in the midst of a climate emergency is reckless, irresponsible behavior,” said Heffa Schücking, the director of Urgewald, a German environmental group. “Investors, banks and insurers should ban these coal developers from their portfolios immediately.”

Euronews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.

Grantham Imperial: Dr Friederike Otto speaks to CNN's Connect the World about the extreme heat, 18 July 2022, July 19, 2022.

Democracy Now: Bill McKibben | Latest IPCC Climate Report Underscores "Fossil Fuel Is at the Root of Our Problems," April 7, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.

TED: Fossil fuel companies know how to stop global warming. Why don't they? | Myles Allen, December 4, 2020.