King Coal Is Defeating Net Zero

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2021. Lyman’s full bio can be read here.

Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 published its highly controversial Special Report on limiting the growth in global temperatures to no more that 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, the alarm it generated has led several governments to embrace the thesis that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced effectively to zero by 2050. A key component of the “pathway’ to this objective, it is claimed, is to eliminate the use of coal for power generation everywhere in the world.

The magnitude of the challenge involved and its enormous cost have not dimmed the enthusiasm of the proponents. According to the British Petroleum Statistical Handbook of World Energy 2021, global coal consumption in 2020 was 151 exajoules, 27% of primary energy consumption. This means that, after oil, coal is the most important supplier of the modern world’s energy needs. Most coal is consumed in the generation of electricity. In 2020, coal-fired plants generated 9,421 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, 35% of the global total, and the largest share provided by any fuel. Many billions of dollars are invested in currently operating coal plants. Eliminating them in 28 years would be no small task.

The purpose of this article is to explore the likelihood of that occurring by examining the current and near-term trends in the construction of new coal-fired plants.

Current Coal-Fired Generation Capacity

Table 1 may help to clarify the current global situation in terms of the location and generation capacity of coal plants in the fifteen countries where they play the largest role.


Coal-Fired Electricity Generation Capacity by Country in 2021

CountryCapacity (MW)
United States223,621
South Africa41,904
South Korea36,380
Source: Global Energy Monitor

Readers should note three important points from Table 1. First is the enormous role played by China in global coal consumption; China alone accounts for just over half the world’s coal generating capacity. Second, reliance on coal for power is spread across several countries, largely because of its advantages in terms of cost and security of supply. Third, coal-fired generation is concentrated in Asia, with about 71% of the world’s operating capacity. The OECD countries, which are the main ones whose political leaders have made climate policy a major priority, play a relatively small role.

Over the period 2015 to 2020, over 437,000 GW of new coal-fired capacity has entered service. China has played the major role in that growth. In 2020 alone, China commissioned 38.4 GW of new coal plants, comprising 76% of the global total. Outside China, 11.9 GW of new coal capacity was added. India added 2 GW, Japan 2 GW, Germany 1.1 GW Poland 0.9 GW and South Africa 0.8 GW.

Planned Additions to Capacity

Looking to the future, total coal power capacity under development (announced, pre-permit, permitted and construction stages) rose from 502.3 GW in 2019 to 503.1 GW in 2020.

Table 2 lists the countries that have significant amounts of coal-fired generation under development. Many others are making smaller additions.


Coal Power Capacity Under Development by Country 2021

CountryUnder Development (GW)
South Africa8,024
South Korea7,260
Source: Global Energy Monitor

Somewhat surprisingly, even some less developed countries in Africa are planning on adding considerable coal-fired capacity, including Zimbabwe (5,160 GW), Nigeria (2,430 GW), Botswana (1.,650 GW) and Kenya (1,050 GW). It might surprise Canadians to learn that those four countries will soon add much more coal-fired generation than Canada has operating in total now.

Implications for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions

The trends in GHG emissions from coal-fired generation depend on the relationship between the additions to capacity and the withdrawals from capacity. The latter have been significant for at least a decade, driven both by government policies and by economic factors, notably including the increased availability and price competitiveness of natural gas for power generation. Attaining the political goal of “net zero” however, depends not just on reducing the role of coal, but in eliminating it. A recent report issued by a group of organizations that support the net zero objective includes the following figure that portrays the historic and projected coal power capacity by region and the “gap” between projected capacity and that which would meet the 1.5 degree goal over the next ten years.

The figures illustrate that whether in the case of the OECD countries, the non-OECD countries, or China, no region is remotely close to meeting the “required” capacity reductions. Even in the case of the OECD countries, national and operator phase-out decisions would produce a net reduction in coal-fired capacity of 74 GW, to 449 GW. That is a long way from a complete phase out, and the gap is far wider in the non-OECD countries.

The reasons are easy to see. Electricity generating plants often have operating lives of close to thirty years, although with proper maintenance many can operate for forty to fifty years. The large number of plants that have been built over the last decade and those now under development can thus be expected to operate until at least 2040 and possibly as long as 2070. If the plants now under development operate for just thirty years, they will emit at least 57 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The lower-income Asian and African countries can ill afford to turn these expensive investments into “stranded assets”, regardless of the preferences of western environmentalists.


Coal remains one of the most important providers of energy services to the people of the world. On the basis of current and projected developments, it will remain a large source of electricity generation until long after 2050, the artificial deadline established by the United Nations for reaching “net zero”. This is not the only reason why the net zero goal is infeasible. It is, however, the one that throws into sharpest contrast the difference between the antipathy of global political elites for a single hydrocarbon source and the real-life preferences of energy producers and consumers.

Faced with the dictates of national governments to prematurely phase out coal-fired power plants at immense cost in terms of foregone value, consumers in OECD countries like Canada and the United States can only be left wondering. The combined capacity of the operating coal-fired power plants in Canada and the United States is today 242,000 GW. China’s planned additions of almost 247,000 GW alone exceed the reduction in capacity if those North American plants were shut down. At which stage will the futility of current policy become clear to the voters who now not only tolerate but support it?



Hard Things are Hard – a 3 part series on coal use worldwide

Dire Consequences – Destroying Alberta’s Affordable Power Advantage

1 Comment

  1. Charles Gracey

    Good Information. But I think there’s an important piece missing. I think that the attempt to reduce emissions , whether of CO2 or Methane will fail for the simple reason that the consequences will be too dire and when our lives become complicated by lack of access to affordable energy, public outcry and demand will convert the politicians to avid promotors of their use, By then I predict that the climate activists will have fallen silent for fear of reprisals.

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