Is The Plateauing Of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Over?

The biggest reason for the near plateauing in carbon dioxide emissions over the past few years has been the reduction in coal use in China (which uses about half the world’s coal, 3,546 metric tonnes in 2016 from 3,969 Mt in 2013[1]), as well as in other countries such as the UK (18 Mt from 61Mt) and the USA (661 Mt from 837 Mt). It was always going to be difficult for China to keep reducing coal use while its economy kept growing at 6-7%, continuously increasing the demand for electricity; even if that growth is less focused on heavy industry. The change in the US was driven as much by the price of coal relative to natural gas, and the UK simply doesn’t have that much coal capacity left to shut down.

The ability of China to cut coal usage while growing the economy at 6-7% for the past three years has been an incredible achievement, which was achieved by a huge increase in the level of investment in wind and solar electricity generation and phenomenal reductions in energy intensity. With continued rapid growth it seems that China is struggling to continue to reduce coal usage, with coal production and usage recovering in 2017. In addition, the rapid growth in India (922 Mt from 808 Mt) is still driving up its coal usage[2]. Both countries may not be building any net new coal plants, but the current ones have lots of spare capacity.

Other rapidly industrializing countries are also adding new coal capacity, in many cases helped by Chinese financing and construction expertise[3]. In addition, Japan (191 Mt from 191 Mt) is adding significant amounts of new coal capacity to replace the expensive LNG imports that it has been using after the shutdown of its nuclear plants[4]. Germany (226 Mt from 247 Mt) will also struggle to reduce coal usage over the next decade as it closes its remaining nuclear plants[5]. South Korea (126 Mt from 126 Mt) may be in the same position after the recent change in government policy towards its nuclear plants[6]. The fifth and sixth biggest users of coal, Russia (210 Mt from 207 Mt) and South Africa (194 Mt from 193 Mt), have no plans to reduce coal consumption.

In the United States, the use of coal is also on the upswing as natural gas prices have risen relative to coal, spurring electricity generators to increase the utilization of their coal plants[7]. Donald Trump’s reversing of much of the Obama climate policies will of course not help to reduce U.S. coal usage. The United Kingdom has already significantly reduced its usage of coal in electricity generation, falling from 23% in 2015 to 9% in 2016[8]. There are concerns that the plans to remove all coal generation by 2025 will not be achieved, due to delays in new nuclear plants and reductions in support for renewables[9].

The period 2014 through 2016 may have benefitted from the perfect combination of factors required to reduce coal usage, such as coal to gas switching, a focus on reducing air pollution in China, and a rapid increase in renewables investments. This combination may not be repeated in the next few years; for example, many who cover the industry foresee a slowdown in the growth rate of renewables installations[10] [11]. The result may be that the carbon dioxide emission ‘hiatus’ may have been a false signal that will be reversed in the next few years. The focus on carbon emission reductions needs to be intensified and move outside the electricity-generating sector, if the hoped for emission reductions are to be realized.


[1] Enerdata (2017), Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2017, Enerdata. Accessible at

[2] Roger va Rooij (2017), US Coal Mining Up By 19% In 2017 — Is Trump Fulfilling His Campaign Promise?, Clean Technica. Accessible at

[3] Hiroki Tabuchi (2017), As Beijing Joins Climate Fight, Chinese Companies Build Coal Plants, New York Times. Accessible at

[4] Yuki Obayashi & Ami Miyazaki (2017), New coal power plants may block Japan’s carbon emissions goal: environment minister, Japan Times. Accessible at

[5] Peter Teffer (2017), Can Germany phase out coal power?, EU Observer. Accessible at

[6] Justin McCurry (2017), New South Korean president vows to end use of nuclear power, The Guardian. Accessible at

[7] Roger va Rooij (2017), US Coal Mining Up By 19% In 2017 — Is Trump Fulfilling His Campaign Promise?, Clean Technica. Accessible at

[8] Georgia Brown (2017), British power generation achieves first ever coal-free day, The Guardian. Accessible at

[9] Nnamdi Anyadike (2017), The UK’s 2025 coal phase-out: pipe dream or a realistic road to renewables?, Power Technology. Accessible at

[10] Joshua S. Hill (2017), GTM Forecasting More Than 85 Gigawatts Of Solar PV To Be Installed In 2017, Clean Technica. Accessible at

[11] Global Wind Energy Council (2017), Market Forecast for 2017-2021, Global Wind Energy Council. Accessible at


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