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November 30, 2023

In Charts: UK, Canada and Germany call for coal phase-out despite own addictions

Coal-fired power plant in Germany
A coal-fired power plant in Germany. Along with the UK and Canada, the country is calling for an end to new coal-fired power plants and a reduction of emissions at existing plants (Photo: AP Photo/Michael Probst)

The UK, Canada and Germany are leading a push against coal as COP28 kicks off, despite failing to phase out the fuel themselves. The vast majority of new coal capacity in the past year, however, was in China, with new construction outside the country hitting record lows

The UK, Canada and Germany have signed a letter addressed to the COP28 presidency, along with ministers from 12 other countries, calling for a renewed commitment to the phase-out of coal. The letter, seen by colleagues at the Financial Times, calls for an end to new coal-fired power plants and a reduction in emissions at existing plants, underlining that coal is the largest source of carbon emissions globally.

Since 2017, Canada and the UK have been joint leaders of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which seeks to support its 165 member governments to phase out all unabated coal generation, and at COP26 in Glasgow, in 2021, governments agreed to a global “phase-down” of coal. 

But despite ambitious pledges, coal continues to play a role in the global energy mix. International Energy Agency figures show that coal demand and supply reached an all-time high in 2022. Since 2000, coal use for electricity generation remains largely unchanged, says climate think-tank Ember. 

“In the last two decades, coal generation has increased to meet a huge rise in demand for electricity, driven in a large part by emerging economies,” Ember senior electricity analyst Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka tells Sustainable Views.

However, she believes the era of coal is nonetheless coming to an end. “We expect the peak of fossil power very soon, starting a new era of declining emissions,” Wiatros-Motyka says.  

Mine expansion

In October, the German government announced it would bring its on-reserve coal power plants back online this winter until the end of March 2024. The plants were also used during the winter of 2022 to provide an additional 1.9 gigawatt hours following a drop in gas imports to Germany after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, coal was used to produce 30 per cent of Germany’s electricity.

The UK is also finding it hard to make a clean break with coal. In December 2022, the government confirmed its approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria, in the North of England. It says the metallurgical coal will principally be used for steelmaking. In February 2021, plans for the project were briefly suspended after the UK’s Climate Change Committee warned the government that steelmaking should not use coal after 2035 if net zero targets are to be met.

Despite emissions-free steel production methods becoming available, a spokesperson for the UK government tells Sustainable Views that the mine is “crucial to building infrastructure like rail and offshore wind”.

Other countries are, however, taking a different approach. Europe’s first commercial green steel plant is being developed by H2 Green Steel in Sweden and is due to begin operations in 2025. Green steel projects are also under way in France and Germany.

Meanwhile, in January 2023, the German government approved the expansion of the Garzweiler open-cast coal mine, sparking a series of protests that resulted in clashes between activists and the police. The German government says it is committed to phasing out coal by 2038, but insists it needs coal generation in the short term to ensure its energy security. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has backed a 2030 coal exit deadline, but finance minister Christian Lindner publicly criticised the proposal in October.

Canada still has 24 operating coal mines, and while the number of coal-fired power plants in the country has decreased, it still remains a large exporter of coal, with 61 per cent of its coal exports going to Asia in 2018. Mine numbers are also set to increase. Australian mining company Valory Resources has begun work on the Summit Coal Mine 14 in the province of Alberta near Grande Cache. The mine will have a production capacity of 3,562 tonnes of coal a day, which will mostly be exported to Asia for steelmaking.

“Rich nations have the responsibility to move fastest, and all OECD countries should be targeting a coal power phase-out by 2030,” says Wiatros-Motyka. “Historic polluters like the EU, the US and the UK also have a responsibility to provide investment and technical support to help developing nations rapidly transition.”

India recently confirmed its plans to triple output from underground coal mines by 2028, which the coal ministry said will play a “key role in India’s economic growth and development”, according to a statement seen by the FT. India is the world’s second-largest producer of coal after China.

Global Energy Monitor’s Global Coal Power Tracker shows more than 95 per cent of new coal capacity, where construction began between October 2022 and October 2023, was in China. Coal infrastructure construction outside China, however, hit record lows with 18.3GW of proposed coal capacity being shelved or cancelled in the same year globally.

Metallurgical coal

The IEA’s Net Zero Pathway shows there is enough existing thermal and metallurgical coal to cover declining demand and that no new fossil fuels should be brought online if the world is to meet net zero by 2050. 

Yet, Global Energy Monitor’s Global Coal Mine Tracker identifies 138 proposed new mines or extensions to existing mines globally, consisting partly or entirely of metallurgical coal.

Further, research from non-profit Reclaim Finance has found that despite action on thermal coal, banks and investors continue to support the expansion of coal for steelmaking. Between January 2016 and June 2023, the biggest banks globally provided $557bn for metallurgical coal expansion, the report states.

Of those financial institutions, 6 per cent are headquartered in the UK, 10 per cent in Canada, and 26 per cent in Europe, despite governments in these countries expressing anti-coal sentiments.

Metallurgical coal for steelmaking is the biggest industrial emitter of carbon dioxide globally, responsible for 11 per cent of emissions, Reclaim Finance says. The report’s authors call for financial institutions to implement more stringent policies on metallurgical coal and to increase investment into alternative methods of production such as green hydrogen and electric arc furnaces.

“Using metallurgical coal to manufacture steel is disastrous for the climate, emitting 2.3 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of liquid steel. It is time to shift away from coal-based steel production and investors need to support that shift,” said Caroline Ashley, director at non-profit SteelWatch, in a statement commenting on the report.

High methane concentrations

As well as releasing greenhouse gas emissions when burnt, coal mining also releases methane into the atmosphere. Underground coal formations naturally contain high concentrations of methane gas, which is released during mining.

Research published by Ember ahead of COP28 suggests coal mining emissions may be twice as high as governments report, as countries tend to measure emissions by region rather than directly measuring the emissions in mines, which the think-tanks says is more accurate. 

The report, informed by studies by the IEA, Global Energy Monitor and a study published in Nature Communications, says 22 countries, including the UK and Germany, could be producing more than double the emissions that they report to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Methane emissions are expected to be high on the agenda at COP28. One hundred and fifty countries have signed up to the EU-led Global Methane Pledge since it was established in 2021, but few have outlined how they will achieve the target of reducing methane emissions from all sources by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.

COP28 organiser the UAE has called on the oil and gas industry to phase out methane emissions by 2030, but methane emissions from coal need just as much attention as those from oil and gas, says the IEA. And despite committing to end the polluting practice of burning excess methane 20 years ago, the UAE has continued almost daily flaring, shows data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Ahead of COP28, the US and China met to discuss a methane summit that will form part of the conference. The two countries have agreed to include methane in their next greenhouse gas emission targets, following the publication of China’s long-awaited methane emissions plan in November. China, which has not joined the Global Methane Pledge, is responsible for 10 per cent of global human-caused methane emissions with 40 per cent of the country’s emissions coming from coal mining.

Emissions falling

Indeed, this continuing reliance on coal is hampering efforts to reduce emissions globally.

Germany’s overall greenhouse gas emissions fell by almost 2 per cent in 2022, according to official figures, but they will need to fall by 6 per cent annually to reach the government’s goal of reducing emissions by 65 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.

“Our studies have shown that Germany can and should stop relying on coal for power generation,” David Pfeiffer, scientific adviser at the German Environment Agency’s Department of Climate Protection and Energy, tells Sustainable Views. “A coal-fired power plant emits two to three times as much CO2 per kWh as a natural gas-fired power plant.” 

The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee found that emissions have fallen over the past decade at an average rate of 1.2 per cent a year, but in 2022 they ticked up by 0.8 per cent.

A spokesperson for the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero tells Sustainable Views that “by next year, we will be one of the first major economies with power that is coal-free”, but the CCC is nonetheless concerned. In its 2023 report to parliament, it said: “Confidence in the achievement of the UK’s 2030 target and the fifth and sixth carbon budgets has markedly declined from last year.”

Canada’s emissions, on the other hand, remain stubbornly high. Between 2005 and 2020, the country’s emissions rose by 18.2 per cent, shows government data, meaning that by 2020, Canada had the second-highest per capita carbon emissions in the world after Saudi Arabia.

A service from the Financial Times