Coal and climate change
Betting on black
Asian governments are the biggest supporters of the filthiest fuel
In the dense gloom about climate change, news of coal’s decline seems like a pinprick of hope. President Donald Trump may adore “beautiful, clean coal”, but even he cannot save it. A growing number of countries want to phase out coal entirely, a transition eased by cheap natural gas and the plunging cost of wind and solar power.
That is good news. Coal has been the largest engine of climate change to date, accounting for nearly a third of the rise in average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. Any pressure on it therefore counts as progress.
However, last year coal-fired electricity emitted more than ten gigatonnes of carbon dioxide for the first time, 30% of the world’s total. It may be in decline in the West, but many Asian governments continue to promote coal-fired power generation. They are making a dangerous bet.
Asia accounts for 75% of the world’s coal demand—China alone consumes half of it. The Chinese government has taken steps to limit pollution and support renewables. Yet coal consumption there rose in 2018, as it did the year before. In India coal demand grew by 9% last year. In Vietnam it swelled by almost a quarter. To keep the rise in global temperatures to no more than 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial times, climatologists insist that almost all coal plants must shut by 2050, which means starting to act now. Today’s trends would keep the last coal plant open until 2079, estimates UBS, a bank. Asia’s coal-fired power regiment has a sprightly average age of 15, compared with a creaky 40 years in America, close to retirement.