Fired Up: Global Demand for Coal Defies Wind & Sun Cult’s Predictions of Doom

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World energy markets keep defying the wind and solar cult’s prediction that coal’s days are over. The meme has it that ‘coal is dead’, but in reality, it hasn’t suffered so much as a flesh wound.

Indeed, thermal coal prices are off the charts, with record demand driving record prices: Australian thermal coal prices hit $US$400 ($548 a tonne) in March, with prices still on the rise.

The black stuff remains critical because it does something that sunshine and breezes can never do; fed into coal-fired power plants (such as the Isogo HELE plant in Japan depicted above) it provides cheap and reliable power around-the-clock, irrespective of the weather. The reason that coal remains in constant (and indeed rising) demand is that simple.

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan picks up the thread below.

Coal is booming but you won’t hear about it at the ABC
The Australian
Greg Sheridan
3 October 2022

Having seen the disastrous economic and social outcomes of Europe’s energy crisis, Australia, perversely, perhaps uniquely, is determined to inflict similar damage on itself. The decisions of the Queensland government, and AGL, to get rid of coal-generated electricity by 2035 will likely be, if implemented fully, disastrous.

I say “likely” because it’s possible that some great technology fix may show up in the meantime. But based on what we know of technology today, these moves mean much higher electricity prices and in time almost certainly unreliable supply and intermittent crises.

Nothing is certain, of course, least of all the future. But if as a nation we wanted to replicate the European mess, this is the way we’d go about it.

There are times in Australia when the plain truth is so unfashionable that almost no one speaks it. Here is one simple truth about Australia. We are a wealthy society – with first-class hospitals, affluent universities that can indulge their postmodern critical theory nuttiness, modern transport, modern if ineffective defence forces, a vast welfare system and everything else – for one reason: we make an enormous amount of money exporting commodities.

But the anti-fossil fuel sentiment has become so great that now there is a corporate wariness even about gas exploration and development. Yet we are completely dependent on coal and gas ourselves, as well as for export income. Incidentally, substituting gas for coal has been the main way many developed nations have actually reduced their greenhouse gas emissions.

However, remark this central fact which is never allowed into the debate. Coal is booming. That’s right. Coal is booming.

I am indebted to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute website for highlighting two recent international reports that make this clear, one from the International Energy Agency and one from BloombergNEF. No rhetoric or argument could be as powerful as the facts. So let me offer you a selection of facts from these reports.

Last year, global coal-fired electricity jumped a staggering 8.5 per cent, far in excess of the 5.6 per cent rise in total global power generation. Overall, never in human history has more electricity been generated by coal.

Yet how many times per day do we hear on the ABC that the world has turned away from coal? Whenever I’m on an ABC panel and point out that coal is booming, I cause the most terrible conniptions among my fellow panellists and ABC hosts. It’s as though I’ve committed a morally shocking crime of modern heresy speak. But there’s something else. Their view of climate change is religious but, while fervently religious, it’s also intellectually fragile, and if they admit certain unarguable facts, such as global coal use, the whole dogmatic structure underlying their world view threatens to collapse. Thus the moral panic in the reaction.

But I digress. Some more fun facts. The majority of countries pledged to phasing coal out altogether actually increased their coal-fired power production in 2021. Coal, in fact, accounted for the majority of the global net energy increase in 2021. It’s not only in Australia that climate change happy-talk bears only a glancing relationship with reality.

One of the special wrinkles in the Australian debate is the way we ignore Asia. Here are the 10 top countries, in order, for coal power expansion in 2021: China, India, Vietnam, South Africa, The Philippines, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Japan. Eight out of 10 of those nations are in Asia. Economic growth is still centred much more in Asia than anywhere else. Power usage tracks economic growth, and coal use tracks overall power usage. Those basic equations haven’t changed.

When people talk airily about the world transitioning away from fossil fuels, what they are really describing, so far at least, is that Europe has cut fossil fuels a bit and is in crisis as a consequence, while the US has partly moved from coal to gas.

There’s a lot of renewable energy being installed as well, vast amounts in fact. If your story is only about the uptake of renewables, you can produce an alternative set of facts that seem pretty impressive. But you can’t pretend that coal, gas and other fossil fuels have suffered absolute decline. In 2021 coal surged not only absolutely but also proportionally.

It’s also fair to remember that 2021 was a special case. The world economy was recovering from Covid, droughts produced shortages of hydroelectricity and Russia caused high gas prices in Europe. But every year is a special year. Not only that, but the long-term trends do also not suggest the world is ditching coal either. Indonesia relied on coal for 49 per cent of its power in 2012 and 61 per cent in 2021. The Philippines went from 39 per cent coal power in 2012 to 59 per cent in 2021. Indonesia and The Philippines are high-population, big-growth economies as far as the eye can see.

Of course, they themselves are small fry compared with China and India, still the fastest-growing big economies in the world. Between them they accounted for 83 per cent of new coal power in 2021. According to Climate Action Tracker, China increased its greenhouse emissions by 11 per cent from 2015 to 2021. In the same period, the US, that world imperialist neoliberal terrible progenitor of every Western ill, which moreover was ruled for most of that time by Donald Trump, reduced its emissions by 6 per cent. Much of that was switching from coal to gas. Yet the Australian green-left demonises gas almost as wildly as it demonises coal.

Coal provided 64 per cent of China’s energy in 2021. Despite being told endlessly by wish-fulfilment-addicted government climate agencies that China is committed to action on greenhouse gases – I’ve often in ABC appearances encountered that amiable chimera, the China national carbon market – China is expanding coal massively.

The Wall Street Journal reports the Global Energy Monitor assessing that by July 2022 China had 258 separate coal-fired power stations, involving 515 individual units, proposed, permitted or under construction.

Further, the vast majority of zero-emissions energy the world does have is either nuclear or hydro. Chris Bowen scoffs at nuclear energy. He might want to let France’s Emmanuel Macron in on the joke. The French President won re-election promising 14 new nuclear power plants. France gets 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear and is the world’s biggest electricity exporter. Nuclear is much more reliable than hydro. Sometimes it doesn’t rain, and some countries, like Australia, are topographically difficult for hydro.

Nationals’ senator Matt Canavan deserves praise for introducing a bill to remove the legal prohibition on nuclear energy in Australia. Our greenhouse emissions are down to about 1 per cent of the world’s total.

Bankrupting our economy won’t help the global climate. We should gradually reduce our emissions and replace high-emissions energy with lower-emissions sources such as gas, or zero-emissions sources such as nuclear. And before that, we should occasionally allow the facts to participate in the debate. Coal is booming but you won’t hear about it at the ABC.

The Australian

The markets clearly didn’t get the memo …