If you think the world is moving beyond coal, think again. The post-Covid economic rebound and surging electricity demand have resulted in big increases in coal prices and coal demand. Since January, the Newcastle benchmark price for coal has doubled. And over the past few weeks, China and India have announced plans to increase their domestic coal production by a combined total of 700 million tons per year. For perspective, US coal production this year will total about 600 million tons.
The surge in coal demand in China and India – as well as in the U.S., where coal use jumped by 17% last year – demonstrates two things:
First, that the Iron Law of Electricity has not been broken,
Second, it shows that it is far easier to talk about cutting emissions than it is to achieve significant cuts.
In April, China announced it will increase coal output by 300 million tons this year. Last month, India said it aims to increase domestic coal production by more than 400 million tons by the end of next year.
Adding the 700 million tons of new coal that China and India will be mining to the amount they are now producing leads to some staggering numbers. By the end of next year, China will be producing about 4.4 billion tons of coal per year and India will be mining about 1.2 billion tons. Add those together and you get 5.6 billion tons of coal, which is more than 9 times the amount of coal that will be mined in the U.S. this year.
As I point out in my latest book, A Question of Power, electricity is the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy. After writing that book, and doing further reporting, I coined the Iron Law of Electricity, which says that “people, businesses, and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.” The Iron Law matters because the electricity sector is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions. And as the Iron Law states, politicians in countries like China and India are going to do everything they can to prevent (or reduce) blackouts, including burning more coal.
The Iron Law helps explain why coal continues to be a dominant fuel for electricity production today, nearly 140 years after Thomas Edison used coal to fuel the first central power station in Lower Manhattan. Coal persists because it can be used to produce the gargantuan quantities of electricity the world’s consumers need at prices they can afford. Indeed, coal’s share of global electricity generation has stayed at about 35%, since the mid-1980s.
In India, the push for more coal has led the government to give a "special dispensation" to the Ministry of Coal which allows the agency to relax environmental controls and public consultations so mines can produce more coal. As one media outlet explained, the move came after the government “received a request from the Ministry of Coal ‘stating that there is huge pressure on domestic coal supply in the country and all efforts are being made to meet the demand of coal for all sectors.’”
Of course, the surge in coal is going to hamper efforts to control emissions. Last year, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said there is a “high risk of failure” to reach a new climate accord unless politicians agree to slash their respective countries’ emissions. Guterres’ remarks came just a few days after the United Nations issued a report which found that global greenhouse gas emissions are likely to increase by 16% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
Last week, John Hanekamp, a St. Louis-based coal industry consultant, told me that “the incremental coal production in India and China is exceeding whatever coal-fired generation capacity that was retired in the US and Europe. Whatever policymakers thought they were achieving by getting rid of coal, they’ve effectively done nothing but increase the cost of energy,” he said. “We haven’t changed anything but make ourselves energy poorer.”
I will conclude with two points I have been making for more than a decade.
First, soaring global electricity demand will largely be met in the near term, meaning the next decade or so, by burning more coal, oil, and natural gas. Why? Renewables cannot, will not, be able to scale up to meet soaring global demand for power.
Second, if the countries of the world are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing more electricity to the 3 billion people now living in energy poverty, the only way to do it is with nuclear energy and lots of it.