Has Covid-19 gifted the world peak coal?

Earlier this year I discussed the possibility that 2019 could mark a peak for fossil fuel production. We’ll have to wait and see, but here’s another piece of evidence from the International Energy Agency’s latest review of global energy. It’s from the the coal section, and it shows the decline in global coal demand.

As you will know, coal is the most carbon intensive form of energy. There is no chance of preventing climate disaster while coal power remains widely used. The peak and then rapid decline of coal is one of the most basic prerequisites for averting climate change. And perhaps that peak is now observable.

In the graph, we can clearly see the acceleration in coal use through the 00s as China built out coal power stations and industrial capacity. It has then wobbled, grew again for a couple of years, and then nosedived.

The big drop for 2020 is largely due to Coronavirus, and the shuttering of industry during lockdown. So there’s a chance that it might rebound next year, as seems likely with oil and gas. However, unlike the others, the trend in coal was already downwards, due to declining use in Europe, the United States and – for the first time in 2019 – India. Looking forwards, the IEA believes that coal will not recover – as suggested by the black line in Carbon Brief’s graph of their projections for electricity generation.

Of course, that’s not a fast enough decline. And that second graph just shows electricity generation, where renewable energy is rapidly displacing coal. Industry, particularly steel, is more difficult.

Still, this is a hopeful turning point. The energy source of the industrial revolution, and the biggest source of pollution in the history of the world, is on its way out. Godspeed its decline.


  1. You will be aware of the permission recently given for a new coal mine in the UK (was it The Lake or Peak District?). What are your thoughts on this? (Sorry if I’ve missed anything you may have already said on it).

  2. Yes, the new coal mine is ridiculous and I expect it will be such a lightning rod for legal challenges and protest that it will prove very difficult to make a go of it.

    It won’t affect global trends of course, but it will have an impact on UK targets.

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