The numbers that show that in 2022 more coal was used than ever

The numbers that show that in 2022 more coal was used than ever

One ton of coal for every person on the planet.

That is the immense amount of this fossil fuel that humanity burned in 2022, a record number with enormous impact on the environment, since it is the most polluting energy source.

The latest report on coal use from the International Energy Agency (IEA), published in mid-December, estimates that 8,025 million tons (Mt) will have been used in the year that is ending, the highest annual figure for which record is kept.

The previous record had been reached in 2013, when 7,997 Mt of coal were used.

The main consumer of this hydrocarbon, by far, was the most populous country in the world: China, which used more than half of world production: 4,250 Mt.

The second country in the ranking -and the second most populous- was India, which was far behind, with 1,103 Mt. The figure is more than double what the countries of the European Union (EU) consumed: 478 Mt.

Europeans’ coal consumption was just slightly higher than that of the United States (which used 465 Mt), but the United States reduced its use of coal compared to 2021, contrary to the other large markets for this fossil fuel.

The IEA report estimates that coal consumption will peak between this year and 2023, and then stabilize until 2025, when it will begin to decline.

This is a huge setback for efforts to reduce global warming, since burning coal is the world’s main source of carbon dioxide, the gas that contributes the most to warming the planet.

The record use of coal also means a sharp setback compared to the progress made up to 2020, the year in which there had been a significant drop in consumption.

That 4.4% year-on-year drop two years ago had led many to delude themselves that this problematic source of energy was being replaced by cleaner resources.

At the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, known as COP26, 46 countries had even pledged to reduce their coal-fired power production, leading international negotiators to say that the world was increasingly on track to “make coal be history”.

However, the record reached this year has dashed the hopes of many environmentalists.

Although various factors contributed to the increase in the use of coal, the main causes were two: the post-pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Coal is mainly used to generate electricity, and the rapid and strong increase in energy demand in 2021 and 2022, when the international restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic were lifted, caused the production of all hydrocarbons to increase.

But the strongest impact was generated by the war in Ukraine, at the beginning of 2022.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of February led to a spike in gas prices, which in turn drove coal prices to new records in March and through the summer,” notes the “Coal 2022” report from the IEA.

“Additional pressure on prices came from a war premium and a growing perception of a risk of physical energy shortages,” he said.

Without free access to Russian gas, many European countries have gone back to using coal to power their electricity grid.

Lower hydroelectric power production, due to drought, and technical problems at French nuclear power plants, which feed Europe’s electricity system, have deepened dependence on coal.

In this context, the three largest world producers of this hydrocarbon, China, India and Indonesia, raised their production to record levels.

Despite revealing that coal use has reached record levels, the IEA was optimistic about the future.

“The world is close to reaching a peak in the use of fossil fuels, and coal will be the first to decline, but we are not there yet,” said Keisuke Sadamori, director of Energy Markets and Security at the IEA.

“Demand for coal is stubborn and will likely hit an all-time high this year, driving up global emissions,” he acknowledged.

However, he added that “at the same time, there are many signs that the current crisis is accelerating the deployment of renewables, energy efficiency and heat pumps, and this will moderate demand for coal in the coming years.”

The agency also highlighted that despite the “high prices and comfortable margins for coal producers”, investments in projects to export this fuel have not increased.

“Governments, banks and investors – as well as mining companies – continue to show, in general, a lack of appetite to invest in coal, particularly thermal coal,” the report said.

“This reflects the caution among investors and mining companies about the medium and long-term prospects for coal,” he observed, estimating that by 2025 European coal demand will decline below 2020 levels.

The other side of this phenomenon is that investment in renewable energy will increase, the IEA highlighted.

In a separate report on these clean energy sources, he estimated that some 2,400 gigawatts of renewable energy will be installed in the next five years, equivalent to all of China’s energy capacity, a sharp increase from previous years.

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