Can We Still Call Coal ‘the Black Diamond’?

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Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock abundantly present within the Earth’s crust. Just two centuries ago, it didn’t have any commercial significance. Private companies and governments were still enamored by the brilliance of gem-grade minerals and wouldn’t work out excavation programs to mine coal.

However, the discovery of electricity and the subsequent wave of industrial growth changed coal’s fate. A sedimentary specimen once considered of no value earned the title of the ‘black diamond’, and rightly so. No one can deny the role of coal in developing and shaping the global economy in the last century and changing the lives of millions of people for better.

But, the tables have turned now. The substance that fuelled the industrial revolution is now considered by many as an antagonist in the rapidly deteriorating climate conditions. As it stands, more than 80% of the coal mined around the world is used to generate 37% of global electricity. Coal is primarily made of carbon along with nitrogen, hydrogen, and sulfur. During combustion, this carbon reacts with oxygen and produces greenhouse gases that are the main culprit of global warming. This is an alternative, called clean coal, but this process has a way to go before it reaches the mainstream of American industry, due to the financial burden it provides.

Environmentalists and many nation states are denouncing the use of coal. On the other hand, it is a relatively inexpensive means of energy and is why so many developing countries are claiming their right to use it.

In this two-part article series, we are going to discuss different aspects of coal production and its role in energy generation in different regions of the world. We will also try to discern the future of this sedimentary rock.

Paris Agreement: The Pact for Ultimate Extinction of the Coal Industry

The Paris Agreement is a treaty on climate change within the UN conventions and has 195 nation states as its signatories. The agenda of the agreement is to devise global and nationwide policies to decrease the greenhouse gas emission. The major goal of cutting down greenhouse emission is to keep the global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

It is a no-brainer that the cumulative greenhouse emissions can’t be reduced without dropping and decreasing the use of coal as the energy source. That’s where a conflict develops that we are going to discuss later.  

According to the Paris agreement, the developing countries are going to get coal completely out of their power generation equation by 2050. Meanwhile, developed countries will do the same by 2030. However, this is what will happen in an ideal scenario. By taking into account the current status of the global coal industry, it looks like the majority of signatories might not be able to cut down their coal use and greenhouse footprint within the given timeframe.

China: The Biggest Player in the Coal Sector at the Moment

China has earned the status of a global power player through its relentless economic growth. Emerging Asian economies including India and China are the main reasons behind the increased coal demand in the last two decades. Today, coal is powering a major part of the industrial growth in China. The country accounts for half of all the global coal consumption.    

China is using coal so aggressively that its demand has peaked earlier than expected. Coal consumption experienced a steady decline between 2013 and 2016. However, the rebound in 2017 has raised the concerns that instead of declining coal consumption will remain in a plateau phase.

Amid the falling prices of renewable energy alternatives and increasing dependence on shale gas among many thriving economies, China is not willing to take any risks. The country sticks to conventional energy generated from coal instead of experimenting with alternatives to rule out any compromise on its steady economic growth.  

Europe is on the Verge of Coal Phase Out

While China is still capitalizing on coal use, many European economies are on the course of its phase-out. For instance, France has emerged as the most responsible and ambitious country in the context of cutting down the use of coal. The country has already shifted its primary energy dependence from coal to other sources and pledged to go completely coal-free in the next two years.

The UK, the first country to set up a coal-fired power plant, might set an example of becoming one of the first few countries to become coal-free. The UK used coal-free energy for nearly 1000 hours (approximately 42 days) last year.

This growing independence from coal power suggests that the UK will easily reach the phase-out stage in the set timeframe by 2025. Many other countries in the region are also following in Britain’s footsteps. For instance, 10 EU members have promised to achieve the coal phase out before 2030.  

Why Moving Away from Coal Looks so Easy in Europe?

There are multiple reasons why the energy transition from coal to other sources in Europe seems really attainable.

Collapsing Cost of Renewable Energy

In the UK and many other European countries, the cost of renewable energy has dropped to a level where it has become cheaper than the conventional energy generation (by coal or gas). The trend of dropping prices continues as more players are foraying into the sector.

Mounting Cost of Maintenance

There are many coal-fired power plants in the UK and Australia that have completed their operating life. They are due for replacement in the next decade or so. Setting up a coal power project from scratch entails a huge investment with really sluggish ROI. The same monetary sources can be harnessed in transitional fuel and renewable sources to fulfill functional demands and as well to meet the greenhouse cut down targets.  

It is also important to note that nearly half of all the European coal-fired power plants are loss-making and experts believe that this number will be doubled in the next decade. With such a bleak scenario, it looks very imminent that Europe will grow out of coal use rather soon.  [To be continued in Part 2]

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