As 1Q23 draws to a close, some might characterise the global coal industry as a poker player running low on chips. Despite its status as a veteran player, with much time and capital invested over the years, the feeling that coal’s ‘luck’ has turned for the worse has failed to dissipate with the dawn of the new year.
Register for free »
Get started now for absolutely FREE, no credit card required.
Indeed, large scale public opinion remains stoically opposed to the continued use of coal for power. This was apparent in January, as protests in Germany – backed and attended by climate activist Greta Thunberg – over the expansion of the RWE-operated Garzweiler coal mine made headlines across international mainstream media.
Furthermore, as illustrated by a recent presentation by Fitch Ratings, major financial institutions around the globe are continuing to withdraw from financing coal ventures. The writing on the wall seems particularly clear for Australia: “as part of the net-zero banking alliance, all of the big four banks in Australia have committed to stop financing new thermal coal mining projects, and to exit financing the thermal coal sector entirely, by 2030.”1 (For more information regarding the state of the Australian coal industry, make sure to read Fitch Solutions’ regional report on pp. 8 – 13).
This being said, coal has not been without its victories of late. For example, while UK environmental groups expressed dismay at the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria – the first to be approved in over 30 years – in the town of Whitehaven, where the mine is being developed, the feeling is reportedly very different. According to The Guardian, the local community has shown strong support for the mine across the political spectrum, with a desire to see renewed economic growth and community spirit playing a key role in swaying opinions.2
Additionally, on the other side of the planet, China continues to ‘double down’ on coal. As reported by Reuters, in January-February the world’s largest coal miner and consumer increased its coal output to 734.23 million t, a 5.8% increase compared to the same period in 2022 (686.6 million t).3 Likewise, during this period the country also re-established trading relations with Australia, ending its unofficial ban on imports from Down Under, which has been in place since the end of 2020.4 With increases in global coal prices, as well as energy supply chain disruption resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has continued to favour coal as it prioritises its energy security.3
Moreover, ‘clean coal’ continues to gather momentum. As spoken to by many of the articles in this issue, technology is offering coal a viable way to ‘buy in’ into an extended period of viability. For example, FMI (pp. 46 – 48) discusses how as countries, such as the US, introduce new initiatives demanding lower emissions, clean coal technologies offer definitive ways to improve the efficiency of power plants. Likewise, this month’s cover advertiser, Wirtgen (pp. 26 – 30), outlines how cutting technologies can optimise coal mining operations and reduce emissions.
Fundamentally, coal is not out of the game yet. The UK switching to emergency backup coal plants to supply almost 5% of its energy during a cold snap this past winter, in addition to the positive trends mentioned above, is clear evidence of the critical role coal continues to play, in the absence of a truly fit-for-purpose alternative fuel source.5
The question of how many hands does coal still have left to play remains, however so does the industry’s consistent answer. As long as coal has chips left in its stack, it will not cede its seat at the table.
- ‘Insights On: APAC Coal Sector Outlook amidst the Green Transition’, Fitch Ratings, (16 February 2023)
- ‘Why this town wants its coal mine back amidst the climate crisis’, The Guardian, (7 March 2023), www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2023/mar/07/why-this-town-wants-its-coal-mine-back-amidst-the-climate-crisis-video
- ‘China coal output up 5.8% in Jan-Feb as new capacity comes online’, Reuters, (15 March 2023), www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/china-coal-output-up-58-jan-feb-new-capacity-comes-online-2023-03-15/
- ‘XU, M., and AIZHU, C., ‘China boosts Australian coal imports on hopes for more easing of curbs’, Reuters, (22 February 2023), www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/china-boosts-australian-coal-imports-hopes-more-easing-curbs-traders-data-2023-02-21/
- ‘ ‘Britain fires up back-up coal plants for first time ever’, The Telegraph, (8 March 2023), www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/03/07/ftse-100-markets-live-news-halifax-house-prices/