As the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, phasing out the coal is a critical step in achieving the emissions reductions required to keep global warming to 1.5 Celsius degree (C), as set forth in the Paris Agreement.
The year 2021 marked a watershed moment for coal power, with investors seeking greener investments and governments pledging to work toward a gradual phase-out of fossil fuel.
While major coal-dependent countries promised to phase out coal-fired power generation for the first time at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, experts say there is still a long way to go.
Currently, the world's total coal-fired power capacity is 2,068 gigawatts (GW), which was 2,125 last year according to International Energy Agency (IEA). Some 351 GW of capacity is scheduled to be retired as a result of commitments made in the run-up to and at the Glasgow summit, in line with Paris Agreement goals.
Although it is critical for the world's top carbon-emitting countries, such as China and India, to abandon coal, global efforts to achieve the 1.5 C target are still insufficient.
Moreover, it will not be so easy to implement plans to exit coal power for coal-dependent governments, including China, India, Russia and Australia.
Here is a timeline for the biggest moments for the coal phase-out in 2021:
According to the Chinese industry website Sohu, China's largest coal-producing region, Inner Mongolia, approved power and industrial facilities in 2020, locking in annual coal use the size of Germany's. It was the most visible manifestation of Beijing's coal-fueled epidemic recovery.
China's energy regulator has been rebuked by central government inspectors for encouraging coal power expansion regardless of Beijing's environmental intentions.
Hailed as 'groundbreaking', the report by the Central Environmental Inspection Team (CEIT) was seen as an indication of Beijing's struggles to include President Xi's climate goals into all planning decisions.
The government of Bangladesh has announced intentions to shut down nine coal-fired power stations, according to the Bangladeshi newspaper the Daily Sun. The decision was based on the high cost of imported coal, declining financial support from international investors, and Bangladesh's role as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum.
Plans to establish the UK's first deep coal mine for coking coal in 30 years were put on hold after the government was accused of 'rank hypocrisy' for approving the project while pushing for global climate action.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has requested that the G7 group of wealthy countries phase out coal by 2030 and 'cancel all global coal projects in the pipeline,' putting pressure on Japan and the US to come up with proposals.
China's economic development plan for the next ten years does not include a plan to stop coal expansion, but it does emphasize 'clean and efficient coal use.' Beijing's climate strategy, according to analysts, is 'crawling' its way to carbon neutrality.
During a leaders' summit held by newly elected Joe Biden in April, South Korea, a long-time coal supporter, vowed to stop subsidizing other countries' coal projects. President Xi Jinping stated that China would 'gradually reduce' its coal usage between 2026 and 2030, implying a 2025 peak.
The Asian Development Bank proposed a policy that will prohibit all financing for coal mining and power facilities, hastening Asia's transition away from coal.
Alok Sharma, the UK Cop26 president, took advantage of the worldwide movement away from coal to declare that the November Glasgow meeting will 'consign coal to history.'
The IEA cautioned that if the energy sector is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, it must stop expanding fossil fuels this year, according to its first 1.5 C scenario.
Following initial reluctance, Japan agreed to a G7 commitment to terminate unrestricted coal power funding abroad by the end of 2021, leaving China as the only big coal funder abroad.
China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) anticipates China to reduce coal usage to 44% of total energy consumption by 2030 and 8% by 2060 as the country strives to meet its climate change targets by using more natural gas.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China's largest bank, said it would no longer fund a 2.8GW coal power station in Zimbabwe, citing 'environmental difficulties' amid a wave of Chinese-backed coal projects being canceled.
Climate advisors in South Africa advised the government to increase its 2030 climate goals by speeding up the transition away from coal and halting new coal power projects.
Indonesia, on the other hand, submitted to the UN a long-term strategy indicating that the amount of coal used for primary energy will increase until at least 2050.
Climate and energy ministers from the G20, including Indonesia, have reached a stalemate over coal power's phase-out, with China, Russia, and India refusing a timeline.
Brazil disregarded the Italian G20 presidency's request for a coal phase-out by releasing a plan that calls for investment in coal extraction while allowing coal to be used until 2050.
A new coal-fired power plant in Sri Lanka has been ruled out by the administration.
According to a research paper published by Greenpeace, China approved only 5.2GW of coal projects in the first half of 2021, down 79% from the same period in 2020. Local governments have postponed the approval of new projects, but campaigners say they are 'still awaiting financial backing.'
At the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping said that China would no longer support new coal power projects abroad, effectively drying up foreign funding for unabated coal production. The action comes ten months after China's environment ministry proposed a ban on coal power investment in other countries.
The decision was made in the midst of a serious power shortage in China driven by rising coal costs and supply limits, as well as spiking coal use. Environmental regulations, according to local media sites, were to blame for the power outages, which analysts believed would lead to a backlash against climate action.
India’s power crisis was spurred by rising energy demand and rising coal costs, with coal inventories falling to four days worth, one of the lowest points.
During the G20 leaders' conference in Rome, certain members, particularly China and India, expressed reservations about establishing a timeline for coal's phase-out. However, with China's support, the group agreed to stop using international public funds to fund unabated coal power generation by the end of 2021.
The future of coal was a major topic of discussion at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
For the first time, more than 40 countries signed a statement vowing to phase out coal power, with 18 of them promising to phase out or freeze new coal-fired plants both domestically and globally. Australia, China, India, and the United States were all left out of the agreement.
Despite China and India's last-minute watering down, the Glasgow climate deal called for countries to 'accelerate the phasedown of unabated coal power' – a major first in the UN Climate Change initiative.
South Africa's $8.5 billion transition package to wean the country off coal has been praised as a model for other large growing countries transitioning to cleaner energy sources. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa called it a 'watershed moment.'
The $2 billion Climate Investment Funds pilot scheme, which was launched in Glasgow to promote the transition from coal to clean energy, included South Africa, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. They account for more than a quarter of all global coal-related emissions.
Germany's newly formed coalition government revealed at the end of the month a goal to 'ideally' phase out coal by 2030, eight years ahead of schedule.
Despite substantial policy shifts away from coal, the quantity of energy generated from coal increased by 9% in 2021, with overall coal demand set to reach an all-time high in 2022, according to an IEA analysis.
This dramatic resurgence, driven by China and India, comes after two years of declining worldwide coal power generation in 2019 and 2020, putting net-zero climate objectives in jeopardy, according to the IEA. Electricity demand is growing faster than low-carbon supply, and fossil gas prices are skyrocketing, according to experts.
By Sibel Morrow