The share of energy generated from coal has dropped more sharply during the pandemic than that of any other power source, according to a new report Monday that looked at coal demand in some of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The shift away from coal power had a significant impact on global emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide, the researchers said, and could lead to an acceleration of the global shift toward renewable energy.
The report, led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed emissions and electricity demand in the United States, Europe and India.
Ottmar Edenhofer, director and chief economist at the Potsdam Institute and an author of the study, said the findings were surprising because natural gas has traditionally had the highest operating costs of all power sources, so gas-fired plants are usually the first to be taken offline when demand for power falls. The sharp decline in gas prices during the pandemic, however, 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, so even the relatively small decreases in demand that caused coal plants to go offline resulted in substantial decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. Burning coal for power also pollutes the air, releasing toxins that have been linked to heart and lung problems and some neurological disorders.
In some regions studied, a 20% decrease in power demand from 2019 monthly averages corresponded with decreases in carbon dioxide emissions of up to 50%. Emissions declines in terms of coal demand were most pronounced in Germany, Spain and Britain.
The trend away from coal could outlast the pandemic, the report said. That's because power plants that use renewable energy, like wind or solar, are expensive to build. Once complete, though, it is not necessary to purchase fuels to run them.
According to a separate study by Ember Climate, an energy research organization based in London, global wind and solar power capacity increased last year despite the pandemic. That, combined with the relatively low operating costs, means that when power demand rebounds, a greater share of the total energy will quite likely come from low-emissions or renewable sources.
The authors of the Potsdam report noted, however, that so-called brown recovery plans that expand coal power are still a possibility. That is particularly a concern in parts of Southeast Asia, where energy demand is increasing quickly but high interest rates can lead to steep costs for renewable energy projects.
"We are not saying we predict that coal will be phased out," Edenhofer said. "What we are saying is, this is now a splendid opportunity, and it would be good if energy ministers and finance ministers around the globe will take advantage of the situation."
Katrin Ganswindt, who works on energy and finance campaigns for the German environmental nonprofit Urgewald, noted that market forces could push some countries to a brown energy recovery. She noted that in China, the appetite for new coal power plants is waning, leading Chinese coal corporations to pursue new coal projects in neighboring countries.
"The consideration is always, in the end, a financial one," Ganswindt said. "It's less risky to do what you know instead of changing that, because the risk of climate change still looks so unrealistic or so far away."