From Berlin to London and beyond, coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is having a resurgence.
This month, the German government cleared plans to reactivate decommissioned coal-fired power plants. Austria is about to reopen a plant that has been shut since 2020. The government in France said it is “reserving the option” to do the same this winter, while the Netherlands has lifted a cap on the amount of energy that can be produced by coal-fired facilities. Over in Britain, the government is looking at the possibility of delaying the closure of some coal-based plants.
On the other side of the world, Colombia is stepping up coal production and has resumed exports to Ireland, which had halted imports from the Andean country in 2016 because of human rights concerns. Australian and South African coal producers have seen a jump in demand from international buyers. U.S. coal exports, meanwhile, are set to reach a three-year high this year.
Driving this renewed interest in the so-called black stuff is Russia’s war in Ukraine and the way it has transformed the global energy landscape.
Across Europe, the early days of the conflict brought pledges to speed up an end to the reliance on coal-fired power plants; given Russia’s invasion, nations across the West quickly moved to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies. But as the war has dragged on, it has also exposed a harsh reality: Much of Europe isn’t ready to make a clean break with Russia when it comes to energy. In a few years, the continent may be more self-sufficient and less reliant on fossil fuels — a European plan laid out in July 2021 promised an end to all fossil fuel use by 2030. But right now, energy costs are soaring, supplies are low, and cleaner alternatives aren’t anywhere near ready to make up the difference.
Europe has also seen its own version of a global trend: As pandemic-driven shutdowns have eased and economies have sprung back to life, demand for energy has spiraled.
The upshot: Less than six months after the war began, coal is re-emerging as a fuel of choice, or necessity — even in places with strong commitments to green energy. And politicians who have made careers arguing against fossil fuels have been left with little choice but to embrace coal — at least for now.
“The Ukraine War has affected energy supplies and commodity prices both, and so governments have been thinking about energy security,” Chunping Xie, an energy economist and policy fellow at the London School of Economics, told Grid. “And we have seen them turn to things like coal, despite their international commitments on climate change” to cut down on coal use.
Geopolitical concerns involving Russia, in other words, are intersecting with long-running worries about global warming. And the results could be catastrophic for the planet.
Even for some “green” politicians, coal is “necessary”
A key driver behind the recent interest in coal — in Europe, the U.S. and other countries — is the way higher energy prices are fanning inflation, hitting the pockets of consumers and thus putting pressure on politicians to do something — anything — to bring down the cost of everyday essentials.
As Grid has previously reported, the upward trend in prices for basics is already spurring unrest globally, raising alarm bells in corridors of power around the world.
In Britain, Russian supplies are a relatively small part of the country’s energy mix, accounting for only 4 percent of its gas needs. But higher prices, and concerns about shortfalls further down the road as winter approaches, have sparked a focus on contingency plans — and that’s turned a spotlight on coal. As a British government spokesperson said to Reuters in May: “While there is no shortage of supply, we may need to make our remaining coal-fired power stations available to provide additional backup electricity this coming winter if needed.”
The worry is more urgent for countries such as Germany, where Russian supplies fulfilled more than half the country’s natural gas needs last year. Concerns about energy shortfalls are such that even politicians who have long campaigned for a reduction in coal use have been forced to change their tune. Case in point: Germany’s vice chancellor and leading Green Party politician, Robert Halbeck, who conceded last month that Berlin simply had no choice. “This is bitter,” Halbeck said of an increase in coal use, “but the situation just makes it necessary.”
Similar concerns have fanned a rise in coal exports to Europe from coal producers in other parts of the world. When Ireland stopped importing coal from Colombia six years ago, it plugged the gap by purchasing Russian coal. Now, the story is running in reverse. “Six years ago, Ireland had replaced Colombian coal with Russian coal … but at the beginning of the war they came knocking at our doors again,” Colombia’s Energy Minister Diego Mesa told Reuters last month.
He added that demand for coal — not just from Ireland but others, including Poland, the Netherlands and Spain — is now such that Colombia’s biggest coal producers have secured contracts for the next 18 months.
The result, overall, is that global investment in the supply of coal is set to climb 10 percent this year, adding to the 10 percent uptick seen in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency, which says that Russia’s invasion has “upended” the commodity world.
The climate effect — a dirty future
The consequence of coal’s rebound — beyond the boon for coal producers — is a fresh roadblock in the pursuit of international climate commitments.
“The approach does contradict long-term climate goals,” said Xie. “Governments, including in Britain, are saying they don’t, but current plans mean that countries are actually locking in high emissions in the future.”
Speaking to a global climate conference in Berlin this week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was more blunt. “We continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction,” he said.
Coal remains the fossil fuel that does the most damage to the planet, emitting around twice as much CO2 as natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity. So replacing natural gas with coal in these markets will mean a definitive hit to global climate goals. But the war’s energy price spike makes the emissions math a bit more complicated; it’s possible those high prices will lead to policies that drive greater energy efficiency, and thus lower usage.
“On the one hand, of course the natural-gas-to-coal generation switching that we’re seeing with higher natural gas prices increases emissions,” said Harrison Fell, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. But Fell added that the higher energy prices seen across Europe and elsewhere may also reduce demand and produce those policy changes.
The war isn’t the only reason for recent bumps in coal production. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, 2021 saw an increase in coal use in various parts of the world. While long-term trends suggest a clear path to a coal-free future, those increases and the recent war-driven resurgence suggest the fuel has a “long tail.” The good news: Government policies in parts of Europe and the U.S., along with the economics of both fossil fuels and renewable energy, make the construction of new coal infrastructure largely impossible.
“Without more coal generators, the rebound in coal generation and production is limited,” Fell told Grid.
Still, the coal bump is a fresh reminder of the limited time frame the world has to address climate change, especially in a summer wracked by heat waves, wildfires, flooding and more.
And while the bump may prove temporary, the planet has limited margin for error. The so-called carbon budget, or the amount of CO2 that can still be emitted before the globe crosses various climate thresholds — 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively) — is rapidly diminishing, so any hit to climate mitigation progress is important. The latest full-scale accounting of the carbon budget, measured by researchers from around the world, found that emissions cuts of 1.4 billion tonnes per year are needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. After the pandemic sent them lower in 2020, emissions rose by almost 5 percent in 2021. Even if the coal resurgence is just a blip, it is a costly blip.
“There is a risk that this will translate in CO2 emissions in 2022 reaching an all-time high, with no sign yet of global emissions peaking before and their declining over the coming decade,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a professor at the University of Exeter and lead author of the global carbon budget paper.
It’s not a development many analysts forecast when the war in Ukraine began. And from a climate perspective, Friedlingstein told Grid, this “resurgence in coal use for energy production is not what we wanted to see.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.