• The number of European Union countries producing coal dropped from 12 to 2 between 1990 and 2020, according to Eurostat.
  • The decline in consumption of coal accelerated between 2018 and 2020.
  • As the economy rebounds after COVID-19, the International Energy Agency expects growing demand for coal in Asia to reverse a global decline in coal use.
  • Fossil fuels like coal are some of the biggest contributors to global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As the European Union (EU) adopts a new legislative framework to limit the effects of climate change, the use of coal as a source of energy on the continent is declining rapidly.

Between 1990 and 2020, hard coal production in the European Union fell 80% to 56 million tonnes, according to the latest data from Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office.

Hard coal is anthracite – the purest form of coal with the highest carbon content.

Is coal burning out?

The number of EU member states producing this type of coal fell from 12 in 1990 to just two - Poland and The Czech Republic - in 2020.

Between 2018 and 2020, hard coal consumption in the EU fell by 35%.

The number of EU member states producing hard coal fell from 12 in 1990 to two in 2020. Source: Coal production and consumption
The number of EU member states producing hard coal fell from 12 in 1990 to two in 2020.
Image: Eurostat

“The reason for lower consumption of hard coal is the energy shift towards natural gas and renewables for electricity production,” Eurostat says.

Coke – a fuel used in iron and steel making – is also being produced in smaller quantities.

The pivot to cleaner fuels

The data for hard coal doesn’t tell the full story. There’s also ‘brown coal’ – mostly lignite – the lowest grade coal with the least concentration of carbon. That’s falling out of favour too in Europe.

In 2020, the EU consumed an estimated 246 million tonnes of brown coal. That’s 33% less than in 2018 and 64% less than in 1990.

Six countries account for 95% of EU brown coal consumption: Germany, Poland, The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

The use of brown coal fell a further 33% between 2018 and 2020. Source: Coal production and consumption
The use of brown coal fell a further 33% between 2018 and 2020.
Image: Eurostat

Coal: the COVID-19 effect

As the virus spread around the world, industrial demand for coal fell sharply.

The International Energy Agency’s Global Energy Review 2021 found that worldwide use of coal fell by 4% in 2020 – the biggest drop since World War II.

“The main driver of the decline was lower electricity demand owing to Covid‑19 restrictions and the resulting economic downturn,” the IEA says.

However, the rebounding global economy is predicted to reverse this fall, with 4.5% increase in demand over 2019 levels. “The rapid increase in coal-fired generation in Asia sees it account for three-quarters of the rebound in 2021,” the IEA says. “Gas prices are also expected to rise in 2021, leading to some switching back to coal, notably in the United States and the European Union.”

Demand from China and Asia is predicted to reverse declining demand for coal. Source: Global Energy Review 2021
Demand from China and Asia is predicted to reverse declining demand for coal. Source: Global Energy Review 2021
Image: International Energy Agency

For decades, climate scientists have warned that burning fossil fuels is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warns that unless there are “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be “beyond reach.”

But the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report, published in May 2021, highlights the enormous challenges we face in generating enough clean energy to power the planet.

The report says all unabated coal power plants must be phased out by 2040 if the world is to stay on the pathway to net zero by 2050. That capacity will need replacing with renewable energy.

On the narrow path to net zero by 2025, the challenges are many and complex.
On the narrow path to net zero by 2025, the challenges are many and complex.
Image: International Energy Agency

The IEA report states that to implement the solar capacity required to help fill the energy gaps, we would need to install the equivalent of the world’s biggest solar farm, roughly every day, between now and 2030.

Dethroning ‘King Coal’ at a global level will require nothing short of an energy revolution.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.