Coal is at the toxic heart of the fossil-fuel economy
Around the world the mood is shifting. Xi Jinping has adopted a target to cut China’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2060. Under Joe Biden, America will rejoin the Paris agreement, which it adopted five years ago. In the financial markets clean-energy firms are all the rage. This month Tesla will join the s&p 500 share index—as one of its largest members.
Remarkably, in a realm where words are cheap, there has been action, too. In America and Europe the consumption of coal, the largest source of greenhouse gases, has fallen by 34% since 2009. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental body, reckons that global use will never surpass its pre-covid peak.
Yet coal still accounts for around 27% of the raw energy used to power everything from cars to electric grids. Unlike natural gas and oil, it is concentrated carbon, and thus it accounts for a staggering 39% of annual emissions of CO² from fossil fuels (see Briefing). If global emissions are to fall far enough, fast enough, the task now is to double down on the West’s success and repeat it in Asia. It will not be easy.
Coal came of age in the Industrial Revolution. In the rich world its use in furnaces and boilers peaked in the 1930s and faded as cleaner fuels became available. Consumption in the West has recently collapsed. In Britain the last coal-fired power plants could close as soon as 2022. Peabody Energy, a big American coal miner, has warned that it may go bankrupt for the second time in five years.