This year’s record drop in carbon emissions due to the COVID-19 crisis has renewed questions about China’s continued push for coal-fired power as the government pursues economic recovery.
Last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that worldwide carbon emissions linked to global warming will plunge nearly 8 percent this year in the wake of the pandemic and production shutdowns.
Global energy demand will fall by 6 percent, a loss seven times greater than during the 2008 financial collapse, the IEA said in a 41-page report.
In the first quarter, China recorded the biggest cut with a slump in demand of over 7 percent following an eight-week lockdown to limit the spread of the disease.
“The absolute decline in global energy demand is without precedent, and relative declines of this order are without precedent for the last 70 years,” the Paris-based agency said.
Among the stunning figures in the IEA’s forecast, global oil demand could fall by 9 percent this year, rolling back consumption to levels of 2012.
Worldwide demand for electricity is expected to shrink by nearly 5 percent, driving coal demand down by 8 percent and cutting coal-fired power by over 10 percent.
The magnitude of the declines will draw attention to questions of not only when but how economies recover.
One of the wild cards in the forecast is what China will do to resume growth as the rest of the world struggles to restore demand in staggered time frames and recovery rates.
China’s gross domestic product tumbled by a record 6.8 percent in the first quarter, according to official statistics.
The International Monetary Fund has forecast a partial improvement this year with 1.2-percent growth, rising sharply with expansion reaching 9.2-percent in 2021.
But if China’s recovery relies on a big rebound in coal-fired power, the damage in terms of climate change could cancel out much of the emissions reduction expected this year.
“The recovery of coal demand for industry and electricity generation in China limits the global decline in coal demand,” the IEA outlook said.
Global coal use could recede only half as much as forecast, “if China and other large consumers … recover more quickly,” the IEA said.
The report classifies China as “a coal-based economy.” Despite gains in renewable sources and lower-carbon natural gas, the country still relies on coal for 57.7 percent of its primary energy, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
Roughly two-thirds of China’s electricity is generated from coal, raising the odds that when the economy bounces back, so will coal consumption and carbon emissions.
“As after previous crises … the rebound in emissions may be larger than the decline, unless the wave of investment to restart the economy is dedicated to cleaner and more resilient energy infrastructure,” the IEA warned.