Power generation from coal is about to hit an all-time high due to rapid economic recovery from the pandemic, undermining global climate goals. 

The amount of electricity generated from coal across the world and overall coal demand is set to hit a new annual record in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), undermining efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The agency’s latest annual report found that global power generation from coal is expected to climb by 9% in 2021 to an all-time high of 10,350 terawatt-hours, following a 4.4% drop in coal demand in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the largest decline in decades.  However, this year’s rapid economic rebound has set electricity demand surging “much faster than low-carbon supplies can keep up”. Combined with rising prices of natural gas, which has made the fossil fuel cost competitive again, the demand for coal is higher than ever.

Aside from power generation, the global demand for coal for cement and steel production is projected to grow by 6% in 2021, and could potentially hit another record high in 2022. The agency warns there is an urgent need for immediate action and policy to curb this rise in coal.

“Coal is the single largest source of global carbon emissions, and this year’s historically high level of coal power generation is a worrying sign of how far off track the world is in its efforts to put emissions into decline towards net zero,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Without strong and immediate actions by governments to tackle coal emissions – in a way that is fair, affordable and secure for those affected – we will have little chance, if any at all, of limiting global warming to 1.5C.”

You might also like: 10 Coal Facts: Why We Need to Phase Out The Fossil Fuel Immediately

The report comes just less than two months after the COP26 climate conference, where nearly 200 countries agreed to “phase down” coal. Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels and is currently the single biggest source of greenhouse gases emissions. In 2019, coal alone generated 14.36 billion tons of carbon emissions. Scientists agree that the world must quit coal completely in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. However, this current trend threatens these climate goals. 

The surge in coal power generation can be mostly attributed to China, India, the US and the EU, all of which have net-zero emissions targets. But China, which is responsible for a third of global coal consumption, is forecast to climb another 9% in 2021, while India is projected to grow by 12%. Both countries have reached historic high coal-fired electricity generation this year. However, it’s been recently reported that India is considering halting plans to new coal-fired power plants as it works out a plan to reach its net-zero goal by 2070 announced during COP26. 

Despite the US and the EU seeing coal power generation rising by almost 20% in 2021, the amount does not exceed 2019 levels and both are expected to experience a drop in 2022 as renewable energy demand continues to grow.