April 20, 2021, 8:28 a.m. EDT

Record coal burning in China, post-COVID recovery will feed a rebound in global carbon emissions: IEA

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Rachel Koning Beals

Chinese coal consumption is poised to hit a record this year, according to a closely watched global tracking organization, a bump up that contradicts the view held by many climate change and energy experts that coal burning in the world’s second-biggest economy and largest polluter had peaked.

Overall, as the world economy claws back from COVID-19 and due to the expected 4% surge in Chinese coal demand, global carbon emissions will rebound in 2021, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.

Carbon dioxide emissions tied to the energy sector are set to rise by 1.5 billion metric tons in 2021, the biggest gain since 2010, the IEA said.

The data hits days ahead of a U.S.-led global climate-change conference and days after U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua agreed to cooperate to curb climate change  with urgency.

The results could also fuel the argument by President Biden’s political opposition against dedicating much of a proposed infrastructure plan to abating climate change. Republicans have routinely argued that China must clean up its act before the U.S. spends aggressively to curb its own polluting.

Read: The world’s fossil-fuel addiction has only gotten stronger — so here’s where to invest, says Wells Fargo’s LaForge

“Unless governments around the world move rapidly to start cutting emissions, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.

Global energy demand is set to increase by 4.6% this year, with developing economies pushing it above the 2019 level, the report said.

Last year saw a marked drop in the use of fossil fuels, while solar and wind power continued to gain. This year, however, the IEA expects coal use to rebound, eclipsing the steady rise of “green” sources.

Chinese and global data had indicated that coal use in the economic powerhouse had peaked around 2013-14, before the latest data contradicted that evidence.

“The future of both Chinese and global coal demand depends on the Chinese electricity system,” the IEA’s report found.

Asia will continue to drive the demand for coal. In the U.S. and Europe, coal use will gain as part of stronger energy use overall as the pandemic appears to be waning, but the forecast remain below levels from two years ago. Global coal demand will rise 4.5%, beyond the level seen before the pandemic, the IEA said.

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