Choking smoke discharged from chimneys at a coal-fired power plant in eastern China's Jiangsu province in December 2018. Photo: AFP

Any hope of a lasting reprieve for the environment is fading as nations emerge from the shadow of Covid-19 and scramble to resuscitate flatlining economies.

Back in May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted not only that 2020 would record an 8% decline in global carbon emissions, but also that the pandemic crisis would all but wipe out demand for fossil fuels. It has since emerged that while emissions of carbon dioxide, for example, did indeed fall by a quarter at the height of the global lockdown, daily output now is back to within 5% of normal – and rising faster than anyone imagined.

Even the IEA appears to have given up wishful thinking. It calculates that governments will be spending US$9 trillion over the coming months on kickstarting economies and that, in the interest of short-term necessity, very little of that money is likely to be invested in renewable-energy projects.

It also admitted that predictions about the world reaching peak oil were “overhyped.” In fact, the demand for oil and gas is likely to grow at record rates over the coming year.

But increased oil production is not the only obstacle to achieving climate-change targets. In fact, it isn’t even the biggest.

Before oil, coal was king. It was the filthy black stuff that powered the Industrial Revolution, choked cities and their citizens and set the planet on course for today’s climate crisis. But it would be very wrong to think coal is a thing of the past. In fact, it remains the world’s largest single source of electricity, generating 38% of all power in 2018.

The biggest user by far is China. Of the 1.8 million megawatts of global coal-fired energy production in 2019, China was responsible for 1 million megawatts. 

China is the world’s factory for three reasons. It has a huge pool of cheap labor, lax labor laws and vast reserves of easily mined coal. In 2019, 60% of the country’s energy was coal-generated. The climate-science analysts at CarbonBrief say China’s economic miracle “has been built on a boom in energy from coal, meaning China has also become the world’s largest carbon polluter by far.”

China isn’t solely to blame. Coal is the world’s dirty little secret.

There are currently 2,485 coal plants in operation around the world, with more than 560 on the way. China’s nearest rivals are India, with 294 plants supplying three-quarters of the country’s electricity and another 60 in the pipeline, and the US, which operates 280 plants but at least has no plans to build new ones.

Even the oil-producing United Arab Emirates is constructing its first coal plant. By the time the Hassyan power plant in Dubai is fully online in 2023, it will supply electricity to 250,000 households. 

The problem with coal is that there is so much of the stuff and it’s easy to access. There are 1.1 trillion metric tons of proven coal reserves worldwide, enough to last around 150 years – three times as long as the world’s accessible stocks of oil and gas.

The World Coal Association spends a lot of time talking up what it calls “the pathway toward zero emissions from coal.” But this amounts to two as yet immature technologies: High Efficiency, Low Emission (HELE) and Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS). The WCA says both are “critical to meeting energy needs and our climate goals.”

Unfortunately, neither of them is going to have any appreciable impact on global warming before it is much too late.

The function of HELE technologies is to increase the amount of energy that can be extracted from a unit of coal. But although already available, HELE is expensive to fit retrospectively and not widely used.

CCUS technology is also far from becoming a meaningful reality. The WCA admits that “the current rate of CCUS deployment is too slow to allow necessary emissions-reduction goals to be achieved.” According to the Global CCS Institute, a think-tank dedicated to accelerating the deployment of carbon capture use and storage, there are only 19 large-scale facilities in operation globally, capturing less than 0.1% of total carbon emissions. 

The Petra Nova coal plant in Texas and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s Emirate Steel Industries plant are two of the most significant. But the carbon they extract is not stored safely underground. It is injected into otherwise hard-to-tap oil reservoirs, unleashing yet more fossil fuels. What an irony.

As the pandemic has demonstrated, the only viable way to bring about a sufficiently rapid slowdown in climate change is to cut down global energy consumption. Unfortunately, everything about the way we live today militates against this; the success of every company, city and nation is dependent upon constant growth and expansion.

Consumer societies are based on the consumption of stuff, from household cleaning materials and garden furniture to smartphones and computers, and today much of this stuff comes from coal-hungry China.

If it helps, the next time you shop online, try to imagine a coal-fired furnace roaring into life in a distant Chinese city when you click that “Buy now” button. Because as economies inevitably rebound, be sure that China’s factories will go into overdrive to meet global demand and more and more coal will be burned on the altar of economic recovery.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.