For all the talk about the demise of coal, it’s important to note that coal generated 35% of the world’s electricity in 2020, more than any other fuel. Even in the U.S., coal was expected to generate 23% of the nation’s electricity in 2021—up from 19% in 2020.
In addition to electricity generation, coal is critical for industry, making the cement, iron, and steel needed for modern civilization, including even wind turbines and solar panels. Without coal, the industrial revolution would not have occurred. Without coal, a carbon-free energy transition— forced or otherwise—is simply unrealistic.
Coal supplies the world with 27% of its total energy needs, second only to oil (which supplies 31%). China and India alone consumed 66% of the world’s coal in 2020, and coal supplies at least 55% of their total energy needs.
In the U.S., coal is regaining market share from natural gas, whose generation is expected to drop to 36% in 2021 from 39% the year prior. Incidentally, coal’s increased generation from July 2020 to July 2021 is four times larger than that of wind and solar generation combined for the same period.
U.S. electricity generators are returning to coal because they have the existing plant capacity and it is an abundant, affordable, and reliable domestic source of electricity. The U.S. is blessed with the largest share of the world’s coal reserves (23%), eclipsing second-place Russia (15%) and third-place Australia (14%).
Around the world, coal is still the dominant source of electricity generation. Though it has just 13% of the world’s coal reserves, China generates more than 60% of its electricity from coal. India, with 10% of the world’s coal reserves, generates more than 70% of its electricity from coal. Similarly, Poland, the second-largest coal producer in Europe (behind Germany), generates 74% of its electricity from coal. Even Japan generates 30% of its electricity from coal and has no plans to phase it out any time soon.
At the recent United Nations climate conference in Scotland (COP26), U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry boasted that the U.S. will end the use of coal-fired power by 2030. Fortunately, Kerry has been wrong more often than he has been right, and he has no actual authority with respect to power generation.
India was quick to point out that providing their citizens with affordable and reliable energy requires the continued use of coal, and successfully urged other nations to commit to slowing coal power generation, rather than deliberately transitioning away from it.
India is not alone in that sentiment. South Africa gets more than 80% of its electricity and nearly one-fifth of its liquid fuel from coal. The nation is one of the top 10 coal producers in the world and has spent the equivalent of 6% of its annual gross domestic product on two huge coal-fired power plants that will become fully operational in the coming years. It is the most coal-dependent country in the Group of 20, or G20, major economies. At COP26, the U.S., Germany, France, the UK, and the European Union all pledged to mobilize $8.5 billion over the next three to five years to help South Africa replace coal with renewable energy and find new livelihoods for mining communities. South Africa, however, said it needs more than $26 billion from wealthy nations to transition its power system from coal to renewables.
Also, at COP26, China, India, and other developing economies demanded that wealthy nations pay them $1.3 trillion annually for climate projects starting in 2030, half of which would be dedicated to subsidizing renewable energy in the developing world, with the other half earmarked for protecting other countries from the effects of global warming. For China to achieve its net-zero emissions targets in 2060, investments of as much as $2 trillion a year through 2060 would be necessary. That includes more than tripling its current pace of renewable energy installations. According to China’s Premier Li Keqiang, China cannot easily pivot away from coal until it has enough other alternatives to ensure reliable power. He hinted that even his country’s pledge to cap its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 could be torn up sooner rather than later.
These are examples of the benefits of affordable and reliable coal power, and the likely costs to transition away from it. Much of what gets reported in the news, or hyped by climate alarmism about coal, is simply wrong. Until technologies that haven’t even been dreamed of yet come along, an affordable, predictable baseload future led by cleaner-burning coal is preferable to a wildly expensive, unrealistic carbon-free future. In other words, the rumors of coal’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
—Thomas J. Pyle is the president of the Institute for Energy Research, an energy think-tank, and the American Energy Alliance, a not-for-profit that engages in grassroots public policy advocacy and debate concerning energy and environmental policies at both the state and national level. He served as head of transition for energy under President Donald J. Trump.