Record Fall in Coal Generation in 2020, but Emissions Remained High: Ember

New research has revealed a record fall in coal generation in 2020, however, power sector emissions were still higher than in 2015.

New research has revealed that China was the only G20 country that saw a large increase in coal generation in the pandemic year. Globally there was a record fall in coal generation in 2020, which was mirrored in India and other top coal power countries. Which left China now responsible for more than half (53 percent) of the world’s coal-fired electricity. However, the research report by energy think tank Ember also highlighted that despite the record fall in coal capacity – power sector emissions were still around 2 percent higher in the pandemic year than in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed.

The report found that globally, the COVID-19 pandemic paused electricity demand growth in 2020, enabling new wind and solar to drive a record fall in coal power. Wind and solar showed resilient growth in 2020, up by 15 percent (+314 TWh), equivalent to more than the UK’s entire annual electricity production. This helped push coal power to a record fall of 4 percent (-346 TWh).

However, despite being the champion on renewable energy, China bucked this trend of drop in coal generation during the pandemic, standing out as the only G20 country that saw a large increase in both electricity demand and coal power in 2020. Despite an impressive 16 percent growth in wind and solar (+98 TWh), China’s coal generation rose by 1.7 percent (+77 TWh) as its demand for electricity grew by 4 percent (+297 TWh).

“Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth,” said Ember’s senior analyst, Dr. Muyi Yang. “Fast-rising demand for electricity is driving up coal power and emissions. More sustainable demand growth will enable China to phase out its large coal fleet, especially the least efficient sub-critical coal units, and provide greater opportunity for the country to attain its climate aspirations.”

Behind China, the four largest coal-generating countries all saw coal power decline in 2020: India (-5 percent), the United States (-20 percent), Japan (-1 percent) and South Korea (-13 percent). India’s coal power declined for a second consecutive year in 2020 (-5 percent), driven by growth in solar (+27 percent) and a drop in electricity demand (-2 percent) due to the impact of COVID-19. 

“India has started its clean electricity transition”, said Ember’s senior analyst, Aditya Lolla. “India now needs to ramp up wind and solar considerably in the next decade to both replace coal and meet rising electricity demand. India has the opportunity to ensure that coal generation doesn’t see a resurgence after the last two years of coal falling.”


Key Highlights for India:

  • The report also detailed that India’s wind and solar generation tripled in five years. It rose from 39 TWh in 2015 to 119 TWh in 2020, two-thirds of which came from solar. But their annual growth rate slowed every year from +40 percent in 2016 to just +9 percent in 2020.
  • The report also highlighted that in the same period, India’s electricity demand rose by 18 percent. Electricity production also increased by 18 percent. Solar and wind met 26 percent and 14 percent of this rise respectively. In total clean electricity supplied 57 percent of the increased production, which resulted in 43 percent being met from rising fossil (mostly coal) generation.
  • India’s coal generation collapsed in 2020 as the country’s electricity demand fell and solar continued to grow. Coal generation fell by 5 percent (-52 TWh)  in India in 2020, its largest fall since at least 1990. This was in large part due to a 2 percent (-32 TWh) fall in electricity demand (the first annual fall since at least 2000) caused by confinement measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. Further, India also increased its solar generation by 26 percent (+13 TWh) as it added 3.2 GW of new solar capacity in 2020, although the pace of new solar capacity addition was considerably less compared to 2019.
Coal Generation 2020

Ember

“The clean electricity transition is particularly challenging for developing economies, like India, where developmental goals need to be aligned with sustainability. India’s electricity demand is naturally expected to rise as it progresses in realizing its developmental aspirations; however, the clean electricity transition needs to continue apace for sustainable development” said Dr. Garima Vats – Associate Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).


Despite all these numbers, Coal remained the world’s single largest power source in 2020. Global coal generation was only 0.8 percent lower in 2020 than in 2015 and gas generation was 11 percent higher. Despite wind and solar generation doubling since 2015, this has not been sufficient to replace fossil fuels due to rising demand.

The report found that global electricity demand rose 11 percent since 2015. During this period, China’s electricity demand rose by 1880 TWh (+33 percent), which is more than India’s entire electricity demand in 2020. In Asia, where electricity demand grew quickest, clean electricity was only able to meet part of the rising electricity demand; around half in both China (54 percent) and India (57 percent) from 2015 to 2020. Where coal has fallen significantly, including in Europe and the United States, the emission reductions have been partly cancelled out by an increase in fossil gas.

“Progress is nowhere near fast enough,” said Ember’s global lead Dave Jones. “Despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed. Coal power needs to collapse by 80 percent by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5 degrees. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”

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Ayush Verma

Ayush Verma

Ayush is a staff writer at saurenergy.com and writes on renewable energy with a special focus on solar and wind. Prior to this, as an engineering graduate trying to find his niche in the energy journalism segment, he worked as a correspondent for iamrenew.com.

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