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The End of Coal Is Coming Sooner Than You Think

Despair elides the progress made over the last two decades.

By , a climate communications expert.
Demonstrators take part in a climate march in Bonn, Germany.
Demonstrators take part in a climate march in Bonn, Germany, on Nov. 4, 2017. Sascha Schuermann/AFP via Getty Images

Recent months have shown the consequences of decades of climate failure: heat waves, wildfires, and floods. Rising disaster has come just as the world’s climate scientists are loudly reaffirming a hard truth in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report: The opportunities to stop the warming that’s already harming communities worldwide are narrowing—and fast.

The IPCC report tells two tales. The first is of the inevitability of warming, mostly due to the 2,390 gigatons of carbon dioxide already emitted and the unavoidable emissions of the coming years. The second is about the chance we have to avoid worse damage and keep warming under critical levels. Far too much—though not all—of the media coverage upon the report’s release focused on the former, with an ugly air of defeat and inevitability.

The combination of the physical consequences of climate change depicted in high resolution on social media and television with the certainty of climate scientists’ warnings is chilling. This week, there will be fear, anxiety, and sadness­—and it will be justified. But the hidden danger of this moment is that fear may devolve into defeatism. And at its worst, defeatism can become “doomism,” a term used to express the pseudoscientific belief about the inevitability of our planet’s collapse. But declaring that we’ve already lost and that future action can’t change anything isn’t just false—it’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants you to believe.

Recent months have shown the consequences of decades of climate failure: heat waves, wildfires, and floods. Rising disaster has come just as the world’s climate scientists are loudly reaffirming a hard truth in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report: The opportunities to stop the warming that’s already harming communities worldwide are narrowing—and fast.

The IPCC report tells two tales. The first is of the inevitability of warming, mostly due to the 2,390 gigatons of carbon dioxide already emitted and the unavoidable emissions of the coming years. The second is about the chance we have to avoid worse damage and keep warming under critical levels. Far too much—though not all—of the media coverage upon the report’s release focused on the former, with an ugly air of defeat and inevitability.

The combination of the physical consequences of climate change depicted in high resolution on social media and television with the certainty of climate scientists’ warnings is chilling. This week, there will be fear, anxiety, and sadness­—and it will be justified. But the hidden danger of this moment is that fear may devolve into defeatism. And at its worst, defeatism can become “doomism,” a term used to express the pseudoscientific belief about the inevitability of our planet’s collapse. But declaring that we’ve already lost and that future action can’t change anything isn’t just false—it’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants you to believe.

Also tricky are pleas for hope and optimism. Well-intentioned Pollyannas often subscribe to the same strange determinism as the defeated. They have a predictable list of promises: Renewables are cheap and getting cheaper, or electric vehicles are becoming more affordable, or emissions have “peaked.” Sit back and relax, the optimists say: It’s a cruisy trip down the decarbonization slide, pulled down by the gravitational force of the free market.

Neither of these positions is a good representation of the state of global emissions. Both lean on fate and downplay the potential futures that branch out ahead of us—ones that depend entirely on how hard everybody fights for a safer future.


We already know that climate action in the past has led to a reduction in emissions. Clear evidence of this is found in the historical record of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) annual World Energy Outlook projections. Once, the IEA painted a grim view of the future, which could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, importantly, the IEA’s former visions of the future never panned out.

In the 2008 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicted, in terms of terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity generation, that the year 2020 would see 970 TWh of wind power, 111 TWh of solar, and 12,442 TWh of coal in their “reference” scenario in which no new government policies are implemented. The results for the actual year were 1,590 TWh of wind, 844 TWh of solar, and 8,736 TWh of coal.

The IEA has received intense criticism for under-forecasting the growth of renewables and over-forecasting that of coal, oil, and gas, and has only recently changed its predictions. As Simon Evans, a climate analyst, reflected recently on Twitter, “Contra the oft-repeated idea that the world has made little progress on climate change, there is a huge difference between where we are today and the ‘on current trends…as much as 6C’ expected in 2008.”

Another example comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, which includes a projection of coal capacity in the United States. Those projections, collated into a single chart, look ridiculous—each year’s predictions were proved wrong the following year. It’s the same for the forecasts of coal mine output from Australia’s government resources body. Energy industry modelers believed coal would be booming in 2021, but instead, it is faltering, with demand having likely peaked in 2013.

Admittedly, some countries in Asia are still planning to grow their coal fleet. But that growth has been offset by surprising and rapid falls in coal power output across Europe and North America. Overall, coal power output has fluctuated each year, but the net effect has been a slow decline.

Coal is undoubtedly starting to crumble. Nothing can reverse this, even as the industry is ramping up panicked efforts to rebrand and continuing to peddle its old narrative that coal is “required” for grid reliability a shrinking audience. The burning of coal for electrical power, one of the single biggest causes of climate disasters like the ones that dominate our feeds, is likely on the verge of a global systemic collapse. That’s because it’s soon going to be more expensive to run a coal plant than to build new renewables and rely on them instead.

We’ve known for a decade that coal power is no longer needed to run a reliable electrical grid. A recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found that around 800 gigawatts of coal plants—about 40 percent of total global capacity—could be retired and replaced with wind and solar at a significantly lower cost—and that includes the cost of installing those new technologies. If those coal plants were replaced, that change would amount to one-fifth of the total global emissions cuts required by the year 2030 to cap global heating at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Cheap renewables are undercutting coal because climate and energy activists fought with teeth gritted and fists clenched for the subsidies, policies, and deployments that made it cheap. New coal plants and mines are increasingly difficult to finance because brave activists occupied banks that kept quietly trying to lend money to them. The old IEA forecasts of a 2020s fossil fuel boom failed because we made them fail.


Today, the fight is about the rate of fossil fuel decline. The coal, oil, and gas industries are pushing to make their downfall as slow as possible. Every day of delay results in more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—which means more red skies, more towering flames on Greek islands, and more roads turned into rivers. The oil and gas industries, not wounded quite as much as coal, see the most hope in this stalling tactic.

The newest campaign to put the world on the “very slow decline” pathway is insidious and clever. International oil companies, such as Shell and Chevron, are presenting “net zero” plans that rely heavily on improbable and highly suspect carbon offsets, use accounting tricks like “intensity targets,” or only address emissions from the production of fossil fuels (rather than the bulk of emissions that come from their use). “There’s no doubt that positive headlines are motivating deals,” global energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said of corporate carbon offset schemes last month. “For a modest premium, companies have been rewarded with widespread coverage of their green credentials.”

Shell’s Energy Transition Strategy was touted as a shining example of corporate climate ambition by the Church of England Pensions Board, but my own analysis for the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility showed that the company’s emissions targets would result in flatlining emissions until at least 2030. Although the company was showered in positive coverage for their “net zero” plan, it all fell to pieces earlier this year when a Dutch court ruled that the company needs to reduce its actual emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030, rather than the company’s quietly preferred 0 percent.

More recently, an Exxon lobbyist was secretly recorded cheerfully admitting to having funded climate change denial, advocating a carbon tax in bad faith, and actively trying to stonewall wind, solar, and electric vehicles. Days later, it was revealed Exxon is reportedly on the verge of announcing a net zero target.

Neither the disasters nor the IPCC report tell us of the patchy, scrappy, but rapidly escalating successes of the climate movement.

Shell’s greenwashing and Exxon’s tragicomedy represent two brands of the same project—delaying climate action by simply insisting the right thing is being done in the hope that no one notices the subterfuge. They also both represent a failed corporate tactic. The modern incarnation of climate denial—predatory delay—is losing its power quickly, again thanks to the tireless efforts of advocates and activists.

Increasingly, companies and countries that eagerly set targets but make no substantial changes are being targeted and scrutinized. A recent report from the Climate Action 100+ group, for instance, named and shamed these companies, highlighting the fact that not a single company it analyzed, out of hundreds, had allocated capital in a way that would contribute to limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Neither the disasters nor the IPCC report tell us of the patchy, scrappy, but rapidly escalating successes of the climate movement that is rattling the foundations of the fossil fuel industry. They do not tell us how the fabricated narrative of necessity which the industry has woven is unspooling before the eyes of anxious executives.

What we know now is that these wins are far more accessible than we ever realized—a truth that should quicken the journey many will experience from helplessness to action. Pressure on companies and countries at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, this November will be immense—likely greater than any climate meeting before it.

Climate action is no longer limited to the tiresome dichotomy of individual versus systemic action. A spectrum of potential involvement exists for anyone wanting to lend their hand to the cause, ranging from urging local changes like more bike lanes to pushing for systemic change like blocking lending to fossil projects. Those fighting on the side of climate action are yet to fully realize how powerful they are.

Ketan Joshi is a climate communications expert working on a book about Australias climate change story.

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