Research published today by energy think tank Ember reveals that China was the only G20 country that saw a large increase in coal generation in the pandemic year. Globally there was a record fall in coal generation in 2020, which was mirrored in India and other top coal power countries. China is now responsible for more than half (53%) of the world’s coal-fired electricity.The four largest coal-generating countries after China all saw coal power decline in 2020: India (-5%), the United States (-20%), Japan (-1%) and South Korea (-13%).
Globally, the pandemic paused electricity demand growth in 2020, enabling new wind and solar to drive a record fall in coal power. Wind and solar showed resilient growth in 2020, up by 15% (+314 TWh), equivalent to more than the UK’s entire annual electricity production. This helped push coal power to a record fall.
China bucked this trend, standing out as the only G20 country that saw a large increase in both electricity demand and coal power in 2020. Despite an impressive 16% growth in wind and solar (+98 TWh), China’s coal generation rose by 1.7% (+77 TWh) as its demand for electricity grew by 4% (+297 TWh).
“Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth,” said Ember’s senior analyst, Dr Muyi Yang. “Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.”
India’s coal power declined for a second consecutive year in 2020 (-5%), driven by growth in solar (+27%) and a drop in electricity demand (-2%) due to the impact of Covid-19.
“India has started its clean electricity transition”, said Ember’s senior analyst, Aditya Lolla. “India now needs to ramp up wind and solar considerably in the next decade to both replace coal and meet rising electricity demand. India has the opportunity to ensure that coal generation doesn’t see a resurgence after the last two years of coal falling.”
Despite the record fall in coal in 2020, power sector emissions were still around 2% higher in the pandemic year than in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. Coal remained the world’s single largest power source in 2020. Global coal generation was only 0.8% lower in 2020 than in 2015 and gas generation was 11% higher. Despite wind and solar generation doubling since 2015, this has not been sufficient to replace fossil fuels due to rising demand.
Global electricity demand rose 11% since 2015. During this period, China’s electricity demand rose by 1880 TWh (+33%), which is more than India’s entire electricity demand in 2020. In Asia, where electricity demand grew quickest, clean electricity was only able to meet part of the rising electricity demand; around half in both China (54%) and India (57%) from 2015 to 2020. Where coal has fallen significantly, including in Europe and the United States, the emission reductions have been partly cancelled out by an increase in fossil gas.
“Progress is nowhere near fast enough,” said Ember’s global lead Dave Jones. “Despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed. Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”
Dr. Seema Javed is an Environmentalist, Independent Journalist & Communication Consultant