Two Days After COP28, IEA Delivers More Coal Hard Reality


Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, coal abides.

Last Friday, two days after the COP28 meeting in Dubai ended, the International Energy Agency reported that global coal demand will set another new record this year. Use of the carbon-heavy fuel in Western countries is falling, the IEA said, but demand in emerging and developing economies “remains very strong, increasing by 8% in India and by 5% in China in 2023 due to rising demand for electricity and weak hydropower output.”  

The IEA expects coal use to rise by 1.4% this year and set a new record of 8.5 billion tons. That increase shows, yet again, how difficult it will be to achieve significant cuts in CO2 emissions from hydrocarbon use. Mainly due to coal use, which accounts for about 40% of emissions from energy, global CO2 emissions will set another new record in 2023 of 36.8 billion tons.

Surging coal use also shows that the Iron Law of Electricity hasn’t been repealed. That law says, people, businesses, and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need. The surge in coal use is a sober reminder that the carbon-heavy fuel remains a cornerstone of electricity generation, particularly in Asia. The IEA noted that coal-fired generation will rise by about 158 terawatt-hours, or 1.5%, this year. It also reported that India and China have “struggled to keep the lights on during periods of high electricity demand...owing to coal shortages and high prices. As a result, both governments have intensified efforts to increase coal production.”

The surge in coal use also shows that the effort by Michael Bloomberg, who has given $1.1 billion to the Beyond Carbon campaign to shutter huge amounts of U.S. coal- and gas-fired generation capacity, will have little, if any, discernible effect on global emissions. (More on that in a moment.) Furthermore, despite the exciting announcement at COP28 that more than 20  nations have pledged to triple nuclear energy production by 2050, the amount of new coal-fired capacity under construction is eclipsing, by a vast margin, the current growth in nuclear energy.

The ongoing increase in coal use provides a strong counter-narrative to claims that policymakers made significant progress in Dubai. On Wednesday, the UNFCC issued a press release that said the agreement reached at the end of the meeting “signals the ‘beginning of the end’ of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance.” It also calls for accelerated efforts “towards the phase-down of unabated coal power.” Another agreement calls for a tripling of global renewable energy capacity by 2030. (My prediction: that goal is just more happy talk. There is no way that target will be achieved.)

The renewable pledge was signed by 123 countries. As seen in the graphic below, which I made using Statistical Review of World Energy data from 2022, even a tripling of renewable capacity won’t make a huge dent in global hydrocarbon use, and therefore, achieving the net zero target by 2050 is little more than wishful thinking.

Read the rest of this piece at Robert Bryce Substack.

Robert Bryce is a Texas-based author, journalist, film producer, and podcaster. His articles have appeared in a myriad of publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Time, Austin Chronicle, and Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 3.0 License.