(EnergyAsia, August 12 2015, Wednesday) — Despite growing calls to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, China, India and many developing countries are increasing their consumption of the most polluting fossil fuel — coal, according to a new study undertaken by three scientists at the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).


Cost is a major driver especially with coal prices having fallen more sharply than oil and gas from their peaks to trade at a recent new eight-year low. Australia’s thermal coal sold for less than US$64 per metric tonne in July, less than a third of its peak of US$193 in July 2008, compared with Brent crude’s recent US$50 a barrel price from its all-time high of over US$145 in 2008. Liquefied natural gas prices (LNG) in Asia are down from a high of US$19 per million BTU in early 2014 to around US$7.5 today.

“Relatively low coal prices are an important reason countries choose coal to satisfy their energy needs,” wrote Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob in a joint paper that was published by in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Led by China, the scientists note that poor, fast-growing countries are driving coal’s global revival that will undermine international efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

As the world’s top coal consumer, China recently pledged to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and to reduce its emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from 2005 level by 2030. The government said it has set a target for China to increase the non-fossil fuel component in its primary energy consumption from 11.2% to about 20% by 2030.

But the challenge today is not confined to just China or India, according to the Mercator study.

“The increase in the carbon intensity is caused mainly by the increased use of coal across a broad range of developing countries, especially poor, fast-growing countries mainly in Asia.”

“China’s announcement is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s not anything to get too excited about either. So far, international climate policy fell short of monitoring those countries that have been, at least until now, second- or third-tier players as far as total emissions is concerned,“ said Christoph Steckel, the study’s lead author and head of the Mercator climate working group.

“Many countries in Asia and Africa are making major investments in new coal infrastructures, giving rise to a veritable renaissance of coal. If this trend continues, ambitious climate mitigation targets will be extremely difficult to achieve.”

The study said the world must find and help these countries adopt viable alternatives to cheap coal to ensure their participation in global climate change mitigation.

“Building new coal power plant capacities will lead to lock-in effects for the next few decades. If that lock-in is to be avoided, international climate policy must find ways to offer viable alternatives to coal for developing countries,” it said.

According to a separate study by the Washington DC-based the World Resources Institute, China and India account for about three-quarters of 1,200 coal-fired power plants being planned around the world.

In a 2014 study, climate researcher Eric Lawson of Princeton University found that China built an average of two 600MW coal-fired power plants a week between 2005 and 2011. While that pace has dropped, he wrote that China is still planning to add one 600MW coal plant every 10 days through 2024. This will ensuring that the Chinese economy will be locked in to using vast amount of coal to produce electricity for decades.