Record Chinese coal burning to drive surge in carbon emissions

China

Chinese coal consumption is poised to hit a record this year, contradicting a view held by many climate change and energy experts that the voracious coal usage in the world’s second-biggest economy had peaked.

A four per cent surge in Chinese coal demand, coupled with higher consumption elsewhere in Asia, as well as in the U.S. and Europe, will trigger a large increase in carbon emissions, the International Energy Agency said, days before global leaders plan a virtual gathering to discuss the climate change challenge.

The IEA’s analysis is the latest evidence that the shuttering of the global economy because of the pandemic will only be a temporary limit on the emissions warming the planet.

Carbon dioxide emissions related to the energy sector are set to rise by 1.5 billion metric tons in 2021, the biggest gain since 2010. A major part of that is the increase in Chinese coal demand.

Overall, global energy demand is set to increase by 4.6 per cent this year, with developing economies pushing it above the 2019 level.

“This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the COVID crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. “Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022.”

Last year saw a remarkable drop in the use of fossil fuels, while solar and wind power continued to gain. This year the IEA expects coal use to rebound, eclipsing the steady rise of green power sources.

Asia will continue to drive the demand for coal. In the U.S. and Europe, coal use will gain, but the forecast remain below levels from two years ago. Global coal demand will rise 4.5 per cent, beyond the level seen before the pandemic.

For the last few years, it looked as if Chinese coal consumption crested around 2013-14, and many saw what they called “peak coal” as the first evidence that Beijing was managing to move its economy into a sustainable path. The late increase in coal demand indicates that China may struggle more than thought to lower emissions.

“The future of both Chinese and global coal demand depends on the Chinese electricity system,” the IEA’s report found.

U.S. President Joe Biden is holding a virtual climate summit for world leaders later this week.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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