The world cannot keep ignoring the Asian coal story

8th Mar 2018

There were significant changes in the global energy system in 2017, including the growth in electric vehicles, the rise of renewables and the continued emergence of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel. As recent International Energy Agency (IEA) numbers have shown a decrease in global coal demand for the second year in a row, we have increasingly heard that coal is in permanent decline and doesn’t have a future.

The story is clearly much more complex than this.

Reduced demand is forecast for Europe, largely due to policy measures supporting renewables. The same is true for the United States, though in this instance it’s largely due to competition from natural gas. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Across Asia, there is a very different energy picture emerging.

Asian economies, from India, to Pakistan, to Bangladesh and across Southeast Asia, are forecast to see significant growth in their economies over coming decades and a huge growth in energy demand. While their energy needs will be met by a range of energy sources, coal will play a critical role. According to the IEA, coal’s share in power generation across Southeast Asia is expected to grow from 35% today to 40% by 2040.

Coal has been a critical enabler of development in the modern world. While its role globally is going to change over coming decades, it will still be an essential energy source, particularly to the rapidly industrialising and urbanising economies of Southeast Asia.

China has been central to global coal growth for the past two decades. While coal demand is expected to fall slightly, the headlines hide a more complicated picture. Chinese demand for coal has fallen slightly, even as power generation from coal has grown. Reduced consumption in small and industrial boilers explains some of this decline. However, more interestingly, some of the reduction in demand for coal has been driven by much higher plant efficiencies in China’s coal power fleet. China is pushing for a national switch to high efficiency low emissions (HELE) coal plants in a drive to create the world’s cleanest coal-fuelled power system. Taking it a step further, this fleet will be well-placed to be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) as this critical climate technology is scaled up. China has a clear plan to scale up its efforts on CCS, making it a critical element of their Paris Agreement pledges.

CCS technology has seen significant progress over the past year, not only in China. A year ago, the world’s largest coal-fuelled CCS facility came online at the Petra Nova plant in Texas and it’s already captured more than a million tonnes of CO2. There is also the landmark Boundary Dam CCS coal plant in Canada, which has now been operating for more than three years. In India, a breakthrough company Carbon Clean Solutions is capturing and using CO2 at significantly lower cost than has been experienced in other projects.

All these developments are important. Both the IEA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree that without CCS technology, we will not achieve our climate objectives. References to CCS are found in many national pledges under the Paris Agreement, indicating a wider support globally, but more work needs to be done to progress its deployment.  Political and financial support for CCS, alongside policy parity with other low emission technologies, will help to encourage widespread deployment.

We believe that coal is not the problem, emissions are. Given the growing role of coal across Southeast Asia, it’s essential that support is provided to ensure that coal is used with the lowest emissions profile.

To support this, we, at the World Coal Association launched last year new partnerships with international bodies such as the ASEAN Centre for Energy, which resulted in co-publishing a report, ASEAN's Energy Equation.

We all have the same objective – a sustainable future for our planet, a safe climate and economic growth. To deliver this, we need an energy system that delivers affordable, reliable and clean energy.

It’s possible to meet these objectives but we need to recognise that even as energy systems change, there is still forecast to be a significant role for coal.

If we ignore the role of coal then we risk forgetting the essential work we need to do on low emission technologies that will ensure a sustainable energy future.


Originally published in Coal Asia magazine in February 2018