Global coal consumption reached an all-time high of 8.3 billion tonnes in 2022, with China and India accounting for 70 percent of the world’s coal consumption for energy production.
By Iqbal S. Hasnain*
“The era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ at a press conference in New York on July 27. A day earlier climate scientists released data indicating that July had broken records as the hottest month ever recorded, potentially making it the warmest the Earth has experienced in the past 120,000 years.
The alarming observation by the UN chief and the data from scientists underscore the critical state of the world’s environmental security.
The soaring global coal consumption, led by emerging economies like China and India, has become a major concern. According to the International Energy Agency, global coal consumption reached an all-time high of 8.3 billion tonnes in 2022. China and India, as the top polluters among emerging economies, accounted for 70 percent of the world’s coal consumption for energy production. During the first half of 2023, coal demand grew by more than 5 percent. However, in the same period, the United States and the European Union experienced a faster-than-expected decline in coal demand, with reductions of 24 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
The historic Paris Agreement, signed by 196 countries in 2015, aimed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN agency tasked with advancing scientific knowledge about climate change, has warned that beyond this threshold, irreversible changes will occur in the land, ocean, and atmosphere, resulting in catastrophic consequences such as heatwaves, floods, droughts, sea-level rise, melting ice sheets and glaciers, and species extinction.
Under the Paris Agreement (Article 4, para 2), all nations agreed that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels holds the key to managing climate change at tolerable levels.
Achieving this goal necessitates drastic cuts in emissions. Many experts argued that the cumulative ambition expressed through the Paris voluntary targets — the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — was insufficient to keep the temperature rise within the tolerable threshold. All countries, especially major polluters, must submit NDC reports every five years (2020, 2025, 2030). In 2020, China became the largest carbon contributor with 31 percent, followed by the USA with 14 percent, and India with 7 percent.
A report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), released in April 2023, warned that at least one of the next four years could be 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than the pre-industrial average. Climate change’s severity is evident, as every fraction of a degree increase in temperature raises the risk of adverse weather events. The WMO report also revealed that the global mean temperature in 2022 was 1.15 degrees Celsius, ranking it as the fifth warmest year on record.
Addressing global warming requires major polluters to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions within 15 years, by 2030. Net zero refers to a state where a country’s greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by absorption or removal through futuristic technologies, resulting in a net emission of zero. Even if this is achieved, temperatures are still expected to remain between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius.
Transition challenges and identified trade-offs can be mitigated if global emissions peak before 2030 and significant reductions are achieved by 2030 compared to current levels. The Sixth Synthesis report of the IPCC, released in 2023, revealed that the average temperature has already reached 1.1 degrees Celsius, and some regions have surpassed 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. At this rate, the world is projected to reach two degrees Celsius by 2025, subjecting tens of millions of people to life-threatening extreme weather conditions.
Hasnain: Paris COP21: challenges galore for world leaders (November 29, 2015)
The earth’s temperature is projected to rise to 2.9 degrees Celsius by the end of the century under present business-as-usual scenarios. Developed countries like the United States and the European Union have set 2050 net-zero targets, while emerging economies like China and India have set target dates of 2060 and 2070, respectively. Paradoxically, China’s coal-fired power plants constitute 85 percent of its energy share, while India’s share is 75 percent. Notably, sustainable energy will not entirely replace coal and fossil fuels in China and India by the century’s end.
Japan reiterates its commitment to introducing renewables and reducing fossil-fuel consumption while maintaining energy security using “clean coal” technologies. Japan currently derives about 30 percent of its energy from coal-fired power plants.
The IPCC’s sixth assessment report emphasizes that the world has no choice but to achieve net zero collectively by the middle of the century to meet the 1.5-degree Celsius target. The assurance of achieving 1.5 degrees Celsius sooner has been voiced, and the IPCC warns that it could be accomplished before 2040. However, there remains a narrow window of opportunity, and aggressive climate action is crucial to avoid the nightmare scenario.
The post-2025 targets of major developing economies are not fixed. New technologies and the rapid adoption of cleaner energy sources could significantly alter the situation over the decade. The G7 economies have not set a deadline to end the use of unabated fossil fuels but have committed to accelerating the phase-out in line with 1.5-degree Celsius trajectories.
Hasnain: India, China endanger Hindu Kush-Himalayan-Karakoram glaciers (December 10, 2021)
During the annual meeting in May 2023 at Hiroshima, Japan, the heads of governments of G-7 countries reiterated their commitment to delivering on their promise of mobilizing $100 billion per year for the period 2020-2025, starting this year. However, there was no mention of scaling up this amount for the post-2025 period. Achieving the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold is still possible if the major seven polluting countries (China, USA, India, European Union, Indonesia, and Russian Federation) take a quantum leap in climate action.
In November 2023, climate diplomats will convene in Dubai, UAE, to assess progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement targets at COP-28. The latest report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) should prompt a reevaluation of targets and course corrections to protect Planet Earth.
At COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, an important resolution was adopted to provide “loss and damage funding” for vulnerable countries affected by climate disasters. However, details of the new funding mechanism were not finalized, and countries agreed to operationalize them at COP 28 in Dubai.
The conference at COP 28 will address the current conditions in vulnerable countries experiencing climate-driven disasters and pass a resolution to include “invisible Refugees’ funding” in the main agenda of COP 28. It is crucial to recognize that people displaced by extreme climate-related events are highly visible but are often termed “invisible refugees” both nationally and internationally.
(The writer, a glaciologist, is a former professor of environmental sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.)