The proportion of energy generated from coal has dropped more than any other power source during the coronavirus pandemic. That came out of a new report released Monday that looked at the demand for coal in some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.
The move away from coal-fired power has had a significant impact on global emissions of carbon dioxide, warming the planet, and could accelerate the global shift towards renewable energy, according to the researchers.
The report, which was led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed emissions and electricity demand in the US, Europe and India.
Ottmar Edenhofer, director and chief economist at the Potsdam Institute and author of the study, said the results were surprising, as natural gas traditionally has the highest operating costs of any power source, which is why gas-fired power plants are usually the first to be commissioned offline when electricity demand drops. However, the sharp drop in gas prices during the pandemic appears to have changed that calculation, making coal power more expensive than gas power.
Coal releases more carbon dioxide than any other form of power generation. Even the relatively small declines in demand that caused coal-fired power plants to go out of service resulted in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Burning coal for electricity also pollutes the air, releasing toxins that have been linked to heart and lung problems and some neurological disorders.
In some of the regions examined, a 20 percent decrease in electricity demand compared to the monthly average for 2019 corresponded to a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 50 percent. The reductions in emissions related to coal demand were most pronounced in Germany, Spain and the UK.
The trend away from coal could outlast the pandemic, the report said. This is because it is expensive to build power plants that use renewable energies such as wind or sun. However, once completed, there is no need to purchase fuels to run them.
According to a separate study by Ember Climate, a London-based energy research organization, global wind and solar capacity increased last year despite the pandemic. Coupled with the relatively low running costs, this means that if the demand for electricity increases, a greater proportion of the total energy is likely to come from low-emission or renewable sources.
However, the authors of the Potsdam report noted that so-called brown replenishment plans to expand coal power are still possible. This is particularly a problem in parts of Southeast Asia, where energy demands are growing rapidly, but high interest rates can result in high costs for renewable energy projects.
“We are not saying we are predicting the coal will run out,” said Dr. Edenhofer. “What we are saying is that this is a great opportunity now and it would be good if energy ministers and finance ministers around the world took advantage of the situation.”
Katrin Ganswindt, who works on energy and finance campaigns for the German nonprofit environmental organization Urgewald, discovered that market forces could push some countries towards brown energy recovery. She noted that the appetite for new coal-fired power plants is waning in China and that Chinese coal companies are pursuing new coal projects in neighboring countries.
“In the end, the consideration is always a financial one,” said Ms. Ganswindt. “It is less risky to do what you know than to change that because the risk of climate change is still so unrealistic or so far away.”