Q2 2018: (Lack of) progress in global electricity generation

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

So much for powering past coal. Thirty years ago, coal provided 38% of the world’s electricity. Today, it still provides 38%. 

This lack of movement on the global scale masks very different national trajectories (see charts, below). Progress in Europe and America is being counteracted by the rise of coal across Asia.

This may come as a shock given the rapid progress made with renewable energy over the last decade. Globally, some $300 billion a year is being invested into new renewables, which has seen their share quadruple from 2% to 8% of electricity generation since 2007. However, this has done little more than to offset the fall in nuclear power and growth in demand for electricity.

The global share of electricity generation simplified into three categories1 

The change in the share of coal in the national generation mixes between 1987 and 20171 

Coal has declined steadily in Europe (from 39% to 22% of electricity generation over the last thirty years), but it is still a significant source in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Serbia. The US has always used more coal than Europe, but is also falling steadily (from 57% to 31%). The latest pro-coal policies cannot trump the simple economics that gas is the cheaper fuel to use in America.

Africa and the Middle East mostly rely on their abundant supplies of natural gas and oil. The notable exception is South Africa, which still gets 88% of its electricity from coal. South America uses very little coal for its electricity due to the abundance of hydropower. While the share in most countries is rising, the average is from 1.7% to just 2.6% last year.

The Asia Pacific region has by far the heaviest reliance on coal, led by China and India. China’s share steadily grew to a peak of 81% in 2007, but has since fallen to 67% as the government focused on improving air quality. Australia is the world’s fourth largest coal producer, which powered five-sixths of its electricity generation until 1997. Over the last decade this has fallen to 61%. 

Many Asian countries are strengthening their reliance though: India maintained a two-thirds share of coal for the 1990s and 2000s, then increased it to 76% over the last 10 years. Indonesia (the world’s 4th most populous country) has doubled its coal share from 30% to 58%; Japan has grown steadily from 15% to 34%; and South Korea from 28% to 46%. Of all the countries in Asia, North Korea is an unlikely climate champion for having halved its coal reliance to 20%.

As global demand for electricity is growing (especially in Asia), the trend in the absolute amount of coal used is bleak. China, South Korea and Indonesia now burn 10 times more coal for electricity than they did 30 years ago. Only 7 countries use less coal today than they did 30 years ago: Germany, Poland, Spain, Ukraine, the US, UK and Canada.

Last year the UK and Canada launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance, to promote the rapid phase-out of coal. Membership has grown to 60 countries, states and companies; however, further work is needed to recruit nations who are highly dependent on coal and cannot switch to other forms of generation without building new infrastructure.2

Still, the UK is leading by example: coal generation has fallen by four-fifths in just five years. If the world followed suit, one can only hope that in another thirty years, coal does not still provide 38% of global electricity.

1: Data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy and the IEA World Energy Balances
2: I.A.G. Wilson and I. Staffell, 2018.  Rapid fuel switching from coal to natural gas through effective carbon pricing. Nature Energy, 3, 365–372. 

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Professor Tim Green.

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