Tackling the issue of coal consumption: Guest article from our real estate and management tutor, Hazel Lobo
Posted on: 4 November, 2021
Today is Energy Day at COP26, with discussions focused on transitioning from the use of coal to clean energy.
We approached our tutor, Hazel Lobo – an environmental law expert, for comment on where we are with coal consumption, what needs to happen with energy use and consumption to achieve the goals of COP26, and what potential issues may arise through the use of alternatives.
Before diving into this, however, we asked what lessons could be learnt from the UK based on the (wrong) assumption that coal usage across the nation was barely non-existent after the shutting down of coal mines in the 1980s. Below, Hazel debunks that myth with some facts about UK coal use before sharing her thoughts on the broader issue of energy use worldwide…
Coal use in the UK
In 2017, Britain had its first day of electricity production that used no coal – the first time since the late 1800s. In May 2019, the UK went for seven days without using coal to generate electricity.
By June 2020, the UK had achieved almost 68 days of non-coal-fired generation. In September 2021, however, despite the government bringing forward a deadline to eliminate coal-fired generation, there had only been a three-day ‘coal-free run’ during August. Rising gas prices, combined with too little wind, led to the recommissioning of a coal-fired plan in September. With coal still accounting for 2.2% of all National Grid input, we are still not coal-free.
Coal consumption in the UK was calculated as 8.2 million metric tons in 2020. Whilst a massive decline from rates of 157 million metric tons in 1970, this is still significant, especially if you factor in the knowledge that production in the UK was only 2.1 million metric tons in 2019 (when we used 9 million metric tons).
This shortfall means we are importing significant amounts of coal – with all the associated carbon emissions from both production and transport!
Global coal use
Thursday 4 November is ‘Energy Day’ at COP26 and the focus will be on ‘accelerating the phase-out of coal’, the first aim in the first COP26 goal of achieving net zero across the globe by 2050. There are, however, many causes of climate change, so why is coal such a major target and how realistic is it to actually achieve the ‘phase-out’ identified?
The ‘dirtiest fossil fuel’
Coal is acknowledged as being the dirtiest fossil fuel, responsible for the ‘largest part’ of around 200 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) in 2017, according to the 2018 IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming at 1.50C, with a steady increase in consumption since 1998. There are calls for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries to end coal use by 2030 and for developing countries to do so by 2040 to help limit both carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions and moves within the European Union (EU) to support countries in achieving the required cessation.
Case studies: India and China
Nonetheless, there is also evidence to show that those countries that use the highest amounts of coal are also those countries where reducing that use is most problematic. An estimated 70% of energy production in India, for example, comes from coal. With an estimated four million workers employed directly or indirectly in the domestic mining industry, the loss of coal would have a massive economic impact. The loss of coal would also cause technical difficulties in converting the 135 coal-fired electricity generating plants which are facing shortages of coal in any event. It may well be that navigating the material shortages provides India with an opportunity to investigate the impact of switching to ‘greener’ energy sources.
India’s coal use, however, is dwarfed by China’s, which accounts for more than half of annual global consumption. Last month, the President of China, Xi Jinping, told the United Nations (UN) that China would not only support other nations to seek alternatives, but would also not engage in financing international coal-burning power plants, although the statement has been met with some concerns about precisely what is meant. Certainly, China’s domestic construction and consumption continues apace and with record-breaking imports in 2020, the economic impacts of reducing coal use could be felt around the world.
‘Doing nothing is simply not an option’
Why is it that the economic impacts are so serious? Surely, saving the planet negates all other concerns – if there is no planet, then there is no economy to support? Cristiana Pasca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, addressing the World Economic Forum in 2019, likened the current situation to the situation former US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, found himself in during the Cold War. With the increasing concerns over nuclear conflict and what that could mean for the American economy, Eisenhower was (reportedly) quick to point out that should the worst happen, then the value of the dollar would be a very minor concern. We can apply the same logic 70 years on – The Swiss Re Institute’s 2021 Climate Economics Index models a 10% total economic value loss by 2050 if we do not meet the net zero targets. Yes, reducing coal use will have massive impacts on the global economy, but doing nothing is simply not an option. We must find ways to achieve a balance, and those driving activity at COP26 will be looking to gain assurances that we can start with reducing coal usage.
Reliance on coal
High aims, however, do not always lead to effective action. It is clear there is a worldwide reliance, possibly overreliance, on coal. Coal still accounts for 26.9% of primary energy production, second only to oil use and that is before we look at coal use for other industrial purposes (steel manufacturing, for example) or consumer coal use for heating and cooking. So, how do we reduce our coal consumption for power generation, and what realistic alternatives are there?
Reducing coal use
The most obvious way to reduce coal use in power generation is to stop building new, coal-fired power stations and decommission those that already exist. In 2017, Climate Analytics published a ‘stress test’ strategy (see p22) for a phased shut-down of coal-fired plants in the EU, benchmarking against the Paris Agreement goals. The report highlights (pages 26-29) the fact that decommissioning will not be easy, with a wide ‘combination of different factors’ needing to be considered, not least the impact on electricity prices. Nonetheless, the authors of the report posit that it is possible to move to renewable sources by the mid-2030s and note that, although major infrastructure changes will be required in some member states, these changes will support job-creation opportunities that will exceed the losses from the wider coal sector (mining as well as generation).
So, if this is possible for the EU, what of the rest of the world? In the top 15 coal consuming countries (measured in exajoules), only Germany and Poland are listed from the EU, and at positions 10 and 12 respectively. China and India, already identified as the highest consumers of coal globally, face very different challenges, including those of geography and culture. Is it possible to overcome those challenges within the timescales proposed?
The Production Gap Report evaluates the ‘discrepancy’ between what governments tell us about their fossil fuel production, and what is required to meet Paris Agreement levels. The 2021 update presents a positive picture for both China and India, suggesting that it might be possible – but only time will tell. Knowing that change is possible does not actually effect change, especially where energy production is involved. Part of the issue arises in availability, reliability, and performance of the alternatives. If we are going to phase out coal for energy generation, what realistic alternatives are there?
According to the World Nuclear Association, in 2017, 64.5% of global electricity was created using fossil fuels. In addition to coal, natural gas and oil are heavily used so work will be needed to reduce reliance on these raw materials too. Accordingly, although arguably both gas and oil are ‘cleaner’ that coal, other alternative sources must be deployed.
In the quest for alternatives in respect of power generation, many might offer up the ‘renewables’ solutions – wind and solar especially, but these green alternatives have their detractors too. Wind (4.4% of global generation in 2017) and solar (1.3% of global 2017 generation), for example, are recognised as being costly, low capacity, and low reliability. Hydroelectric dams (16% of 2017 generation), and nuclear power (10.5% of 2018 generation) are also cited as alternatives, but require large waterways (for the former) and a massive shift in public acceptance (for the latter) in order for either to be really viable. Biomass generation is on the rise, with an estimated 1.5% of global generation in 2011, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), with the IEA reporting an increase of just over 5% in 2019. There is, however, academic debate about just how ‘green’ biomass, especially from wood, is and whether or not it is better to allow forests to be used for carbon capture and storage. These debates are likely to continue for a long time as science and technology advance our understanding of just how we can better use renewable resources to replace fossil fuels.
One emerging alternative that might be of interest is the use of coal substitutes. Two UK-led examples could be promising. CoalSwitch, developed by the Active Energy Group is based on waste biomass. SERF, developed by Helvellyn Group, performs in a similar way to coal, but with (according to the manufacturer) significant reductions in CO2 emissions. Both substitutes are intended to be used in existing stations, so could provide a means of using current infrastructure, but with a lower burn impact on the planet. These are, however, emerging alternatives and, therefore, it remains to be seen whether or not the lifecycle impacts are lower than coal. Nonetheless, coal substitution is a promising avenue of exploration, especially if it can be scaled for use in other industrial and domestic settings.
A complex issue requiring a global solution
The concerns over just how effective alternatives are in reducing overall impacts highlight one of the most complex facets of this climate crisis issue. We know that we must reduce emissions in order to stand any chance of limiting global warming to the targeted 1.5%. We can identify the practices that are currently contributing to those emissions and set targets for amending those practices, including the phasing out of electricity generation from coal. What we cannot so easily do is determine the full impact of the alternatives. There is no magic wand we can wave, no guaranteed, easy fix. We need discussions on energy, not just at COP26, although that is a good start. Moreover, it is vitally important that we work together on a global scale so that we can, collectively, get closer to finding solutions.
What do you think? If you’d like to share your thoughts, get in touch with us on email@example.com and we will look to publish your response.
For more on our COP26 activity, head to our bespoke COP26 webpage.
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