An End of Coal? With a Catch

In April, the Group of Seven (G7) nations—the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan—announced their intention to end coal use within their energy systems by 2035.

An end of coal?

Well, not a complete “end of coal,” but we’re ostensibly heading in the right direction—though it may be too little, too late. Anything is better than nothing, but we shouldn’t consider it a solution.

In G7-speak, the goal is to “phase out existing unabated coal power generation in our energy systems during the first half of the 2030s.” But, unsurprisingly, there is wiggle room—crucially, with the word “unabated.”

Fuzzy Logic

Countries within the G7 can continue to burn coal past 2035, provided they employ carbon capture technology or, more ambiguously, on a “timeline consistent with keeping a limit of 1.5C,” a twist of language inserted for the benefit of Japan and Germany, whose coal use in their energy mix is 32 and 27 percent, respectively.

The US coal mix is about 16 percent, down sharply from 39 percent in 2013, according to Our World in Data. Coal-fired energy constitutes around 5 percent in Canada and Italy and 1.4 percent in the UK, while coal use in France is “nearly obsolete.”

Define the Timeline

On a positive note, Jennifer Layke, global energy director of the World Resources Institute, said, “Stamping an end date on the coal era is precisely the kind of leadership we need from the world’s wealthiest countries. This decision provides a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, showing the transition away from coal can happen much faster than many thought possible.”

More soberly, many experts warn that it doesn’t go far enough. Putting a time stamp on ending coal is a rudimentary requirement to achieve the goal. That it has taken this long to take this step, or even mention fossil fuels as the problem in international negotiations, seems little cause for celebration. We are behind the curve.

The Problems with “Abated Coal”

Burning “abated” coal using carbon capture and storage technology is better than allowing the effluent to pour into the sky unabated. Nonetheless, it still carries several risks and challenges:

  • Incomplete capture: Even with CCS, some of the CO2 emissions from coal combustion are not captured and are still released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
  • Storage risks: The captured CO2 must be permanently and safely stored, typically in geological formations. Over long periods, leakage from these storage sites could negate the reductions in emissions.
  • Energy penalty: The CCS process requires significant energy, reducing the power plant’s overall efficiency and increasing fuel requirements.
  • Water consumption: Coal power plants with CCS use more water for cooling and other processes than unabated coal plants, straining water resources.
  • Cost and scalability: CCS technology is expensive to implement and operate, adding significant costs to electricity generation. Additionally, scaling up CCS to the levels required for meaningful climate impact remains a considerable challenge.
  • Environmental impacts: Coal mining, transportation, and combustion (even with CCS) still result in other environmental impacts, such as air pollution, water contamination, and land degradation.

While CCS can reduce CO2 emissions from coal compared to unabated combustion, the risks and challenges associated with abated coal highlight the urgent need for a transition towards cleaner, renewable energy sources to mitigate climate change effectively.

A map showing percentage of coal-fired energy by country

Pledges and Promises

Over the past several decades, many unrealized pledges, promises, and proposals have been made. This is yet another. 

In the end, despite the urgency of transitioning to a new energy economy, the eventual solution to our plight must be found within our collective and individual will to make a better world, not based on false hope and promises but the will to make real change for the benefit of all.

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Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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