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Could COVID-19 kill coal?

April 30, 2020, 11:22 AM UTC

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Good morning,

This is Katherine, filling in for Eamon from London.

This morning marks the release of the International Energy Agency’s annual energy report. The impact on global oil markets has been well documented, but one of the main takeaways of the report is the extent to which coronavirus pandemic is hitting coal.

The IEA forecasts that coal demand will plunge 8% on-year in 2020, the largest drop since the Second World War, and in the share of the global energy pie, coal’s loss is increasingly renewables’ gain. While that was already a trend before the pandemic sent the world into a near-global lockdown, it looks like that shift has accelerated.

The resulting drop in energy-related emissions this year is expected to be huge: the largest absolute decline on record, far surpassing the one in the financial crisis.

But while that drop can and should be celebrated as a silver lining for the planet (and our lungs), it comes with a laundry list of qualifiers.

The first is that, while the drop in coal has happened nearly everywhere as a result of a near-shutdown of industrial activity, the largest decline has been in China—which consumes half of the world’s coal, using it for the lion’s share of its electricity. The drop in coal consumption was very sharp at the start of the year, during the country’s widespread lockdowns. As the government attempts to fire the economy back up, coal could see a quick comeback.

The drop in coal, and the rise in low-carbon energy, has also received a somewhat ironic boost: mild winter weather across much of the world reduced the demand for heating; in the U.K., sunnier skies this spring have helped produce more solar energy, knocking out coal for a record stretch earlier this week.

The IEA, and many other global institutions, are warning that a recovery from the pandemic must be as “green” as possible. The benefits of cleaner air, suddenly apparent to the residents of polluted regions and cities, seem to help make that argument—as do the emerging links between vulnerability to COVID-19 and air pollution. The increasing affordability of solar power, in particular, has helped lay out how our energy sources could switch—quickly.

The COVID-19 pandemic may not kill coal. But it could certainly hasten its demise.

More below.

Katherine Dunn
katherine.dunn@fortune.com
@katherine_dunn

CARBON COPY

The bat cave

This story on China's 'bat woman' is advanced reading on the links between habitat loss and pandemics (you can also read Fortune's story on this, linked below.) Wuhan-based virologist Shi Zhengli has tracked down dozens of viruses linked to bats, but her research points towards the larger threat: when areas of dense biodiversity (from China to Brazil) clash with human activity, things emerge that we don't expect. Scientific American

Trash mountain

Yet another knock-on affect of COVID-19. Indonesia's trash pickers, who earn between $2 and $10 a day picking through vast landfills for reusable materials, are being hit by closed recycling facilities and social distancing rules. There, the risk is not of a lack of hand sanitizer and masks, one activist says—it's about going hungry. New York Times 

"Eating the earth" 

In the age of industrialized agriculture, our food systems—and our fertilizers—have dramatically changed. “It was like a closed loop until barely a hundred years ago," says one source quoted in this piece about the rise of phosphate strip mining. “Things died and decayed and were absorbed and grew and died and decayed. And then we kind of turned it into a straight line.” The Counter

Coal-free days 

Sunny skies and plunging demand have helped the U.K. set another record for the number of days it's gone "coal free." Earlier this week, the country reached the 19th straight day without using coal for electricity, relying heavily on solar power instead. The decarbonization of the U.K. power systems last year helped the country hit its lowest emissions level since the late 1800s. Bloomberg 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

The Church of England is going up against ExxonMobil on Climate Change. Can It Win?  by Katherine Dunn

Forget 'wet markets' and bats: For scientists, failing environmental policies have created a boom time for outbreaks by Ian Mount, Katherine Dunn, and Bernhard Warner 

How Eileen Fisher became a model of sustainability in the fashion industry Leadership Next 

'Unreal': Oil prices go negative for the first time in history by Katherine Dunn

Bill Gates explains how to beat the coronavirus pandemic by Clifton Leaf 

Saving a city: How Seattle's corporate giants banded together to flatten the curve by Erika Fry 

CLOSING NUMBER

2.26 million 

That's the number of tourists that visit Australia's Great Barrier Reef every year (well . . . maybe not this year.) That tourism contributes more than $6.4 billion to the Australian economy, and supports 64,000 jobs—more than the country's main telecoms carrier. But despite tourists getting the blame for the vast damage to one of the world's great natural wonders, this story from Afar points out that it's not the tourists themselves causing the damage: it's their carbon footprint. (Hint: think about how far away Australia is, from almost anywhere else.)