why pick on coal?
of all the fossil fuels used in power generation coal is the dirtiest, emitting the most kg CO2 /kwh (kilowatt-hour)
the coal emissions per kwh vary depending on the source. so, for the sake of ease I will make the acceptably accurate assumption that for every kwh of electricity generated, coal emits 1kg CO2 into the atmosphere i.e. 1.0 kg CO2 /kwh.
again, data sources vary on the emissions from natural gas but if you assume it is around 0.3 kg CO2 /kwh you won’t be too far wrong.
in 2018 global emissions from coal fired power generation rose 2.9% to over 10 gigatonnes (gt). this is more than one quarter of total annual global CO2 emissions, including transport, industry, belching cows and all.
if one couples replacing coal-fired power generation with renewable energy sources and reforesting the tropical rainforests to the levels in the 1950’s net carbon it would reduce emissions by more than 50%.
so which countries are the primary offenders? the table below shows the 10 countries that firstly meet the threshold of 250,000 gWh (gigawatt-hour = 1 million kWh) of total electricity generation per year (2017 data) and secondly generate more from coal than from renewables. it ranks them in order of ratio of coal generated energy to energy generated from renewables (not including nuclear)
|country||power (gwh) generated from||generation ratio of|
|coal||Renewables||coal : renewables|
what is the prospect of changing?
the table below shows the commitments called nationally determined contributions (ndc) under the paris agreement. these originated from the conference of parties meeting in paris in 2015 (cop21 paris). based on 2017 figures (the most complete data) it outlines the size of the reduction needed in mt (megatonnne = 1 million tonnes) to meet their ndc targets (estimations from a number of available data sources). it then compares this with the reductions that they would achieve if they just replaced coal as a generation fuel with renewable energy sources.
|country||ndc from the paris agreement||emissions reduction (mt) by|
|meeting ndc||replacing coal|
|South Africa||Emissions between 398 and 614 Mt CO2e between 2025 and 2030||120,000||226,710|
|South Korea||37% reduction in emissions by 2030||239,993||255,509|
|Indonesia||29% reduction in emissions by 2030||398,921||147,875|
|India||33% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030||609,945||1,133,627|
|Australia||26% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030||82,860||161,830|
|China||Cut emissions /unit of GDP by 60% of 2005 levels by 2030||8,285,810||4,508,568|
|USA||Pulled out of Paris Climate Agreement||0||1,321,421|
|Japan||26% reduction over 2013 levels by 2030||239,169||351,830|
|Turkey||21% reduction in emissions by 2030||297,230||113,249|
|Germany||40% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030||159,617||252,824|
noteworthy pondering points:
- the usa withdrew from the paris agreement in 2017.
- The global CO2 (all countries) emissions from coal in 2017 amounted to around 9.9 Gt CO2 e (Gt = gigatonne = 1 billion tonnes). the top 10 offenders (including the usa) above constitute 85% of that total
- as a group, if the 9 of the top 10 who remained within the paris agreement were to convert coal power generation into renewable energy generation, they would achieve nearly 70% of their ndc without doing anything else.
- 6 of the 9 would more than achieve their ndc if they were to replace coal with renewable energy sources.
- since 2017 the use of coal has shown a decline in power generation. low natural gas prices and more recently the coronavirus pandemic have driven this decline. on 11th february 2020 power generation from coal was surpassed by that of renewable energy in the usa. while promising it remains to be seen if this continues when the economy re-opens.
final thoughts with a final question:
- the removal of just one fossil fuel can achieve most of the reductions in the paris agreement.
- the paris agreement reduction of the Top 10 (or 9) only takes us around a quarter of the way to global net carbon neutrality (around 40 gt CO2 e)
- the deadline for all countries, under the paris agreement, to phase out coal is not until 2040.
- did the paris climate agreement concede too much to economic interests?
as ever with climate change data you can look at 10 different data sources and come up with 12 different figures. so, while I have done my best with the accuracy of the data it is at best directional. but it is sufficiently accurate to illustrate the points being made. also, I have used 2017 data as this is the most up to date complete data that covers all the countries