Why Coal Is the Junk Food of Global Energy?


Coal is the junk-food of energy; ubiquitous, relatively cheap, and providing a big slug of calories. Yet with its attendant emissions (including carbon), ash ponds and mining scars, it’s not the healthiest choice. Like you, though, sometimes a country wants energy fast and doesn’t want to pay for fine dining.

Coal tends to be more dominant in the power-generation mix in energy-intensive developing economies, especially in Asia-Pacific. 

The first, most obvious observation is that higher-income countries — particularly those large circles representing Western Europe in the bottom-left corner — tend to be both less energy-intensive and use less coal. Equally, those using more coal tend to be energy-intensive developing economies, with China and India being obvious examples.

Two things should be borne in mind, though: That chart is a snapshot in time, and the anomalies matter too.

Start with the anomalies. Australia sticks out for being rich, energy-efficient and yet addicted to coal — not a big surprise, given it is a huge producer. To a lesser degree, the same can be said of the U.S., but with the added spice of President Donald Trump’s patronage. Poland and Germany also have long-established mining industries, and the latter’s efforts to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 left a big hole for coal to fill. The same obviously goes for Japan. Similarly, the Netherlands has used more coal in recent years to compensate for shortfalls in natural gas.

Just as Australia’s geology steers its choices, the Middle East’s petro states and Russia are obviously geared more toward oil or natural gas for generation. Similarly, Brazil’s hydropower riches and Mexico’s access to natural gas (increasingly surplus U.S. shale output) make them stick out as low-income, reasonably energy-intensive economies that nevertheless don’t burn much coal.

Such contingencies underline the importance of local factors in sometimes making coal power resilient even where you would expect it to have shriveled.



Yet, as I said, that chart is just a snapshot. Looking at those anomalous developed economies, coal is clearly on the decline in most. The Netherlands announced earlier this year it would ban coal power in the coming decade. Trump’s love affair with coal hasn’t resulted in a renaissance (though exports are up). Similarly, as my colleague David Fickling has written extensively, coal power still dominates in Australia today, but its prospects are waning. Even Poland, hosting UN climate talks starting in a few days, has just released a target to reduce coal’s share of power to 32 percent by 2040.

Coal's share of power generation has fallen in even the most committed centers of mining. Japan has been moving the other way


Japan (along with South Korea) shows it has been tougher for resource-poor rich economies in Asia to kick the habit. Post-Fukushima, and always mindful of energy security, Japan encourages solar power but also embeds a role for more-efficient coal plants. In its latest Climatescope study, published earlier this month, Bloomberg NEF estimates new solar and onshore wind projects won’t outcompete new coal-plant economics in Japan until 2025 and 2040, respectively, much later than the rest of the world. And Japan’s attachment feeds resilience elsewhere in Asia, as the country’s financial institutions provide funding for new coal plants — and thereby technology exports — outside the country.


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