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The short-lived comeback of coal

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Coal is unloaded into large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia, 8 March 2018 (PHOTO: David Gray via Reuters Connect)

In Brief

Despite big announcements on climate ambitions from major emitters and a pandemic-induced economic slump, prices for thermal coal spiked to above US$400 per ton in early May 2022, the highest they’ve been in at least 50 years


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So is net-zero ‘all over bar the shouting’, as one Queensland commentator would have it? And does the price spike justify investment in new mining capacities in coal exporting countries — for example, in Australia’s Galilee basin?

The price spike can be partly explained by increasing demand for fuel. The economic slowdown caused by COVID-19 reduced global coal consumption by about 4.5 per cent in 2020, but rebounding economic activity resulted in a 6 per cent jump in 2021

A far bigger driver of the price spike can be found on the supply side. Due to disruptions in mining and transport activities, global trade in coal fell by about 10 per cent in 2020, at a more rapid pace than consumption. In 2021, the recovery in consumption only led to a 0.8 per cent increase in global coal trade. 

This reduction in supply has meant that mines with high production costs — primarily in the United States and Australia — are managing to find buyers. As it is the marginal producer that sets prices, tightening supply is resulting in record prices for all exporters. This situation has only been exacerbated by the Chinese embargo on Australian coal imports, a temporary ban on exports by the Indonesian government and more recently, the EU and US embargo on Russian coal imports.

Although much of the coal traded within national borders is subject to longer term contracts and is therefore shielded from sudden price spikes, contracts in international markets usually stipulate a guaranteed volume supplied against a certain benchmark price, such as the Newcastle spot price. As such, these two phenomena — COVID-19 -related volatility and political market interference — are not likely to change the long term outlook for thermal coal, which BHP believes is set for an inevitable decline.

The company has some recent experience validating that point. In early 2021, BHP reduced the book value for its Mount Arthur thermal coal mine from about US$2 billion to about US$400 million. In late 2021, even as global thermal coal prices spiked, the company offered around US$200 million to a potential buyer to help cover remediation costs. BHP later indicated that it may not be able to sell at all, and will have to deal with remediation itself.

The development of coal mines in Australia’s Galilee Basin became a point of discussion during the election campaign, with Labor indicating that it would be up to developers to assess whether such projects make economic sense. A recent study by German coal modelling experts found profitability for potential Galilee projects to be ‘highly implausible’.

On the demand side, longer term patterns are also clearly signalling a reduced role for coal, with an increasing number of countries announcing net-zero carbon emissions targets. Australia, Japan and South Korea aim to get there by 2050, India aims for 2070, and China and Indonesia for 2060, though the latter has indicated that this could be moved forward with foreign aid. 

Given the volatility of global markets, countries in the region are increasingly turning inward to secure their energy needs. In Japan, policymakers have decided the energy crisis should not mean slowing down the phase-out of coal. Rather, the immediate response has been to accelerate offshore wind development and accelerate re-starting of as many as 30 nuclear reactors, which have been idle since the Fukushima disaster.

In India, though solar photovoltaic installations have grown rapidly in recent years and rising coal prices would favour accelerating this push, the immediate policy response has been to increase coal supply from domestic mines.

In China, the region’s biggest importer of coal, consumption has spiked on the back of emission-intensive COVID-19 stimulus plans. Top Chinese leadership has indicated that recent supply disruptions and price volatility should see increased efforts to reduce dependence on global energy markets. Policymakers are working to increase supply of domestic coal in order to relieve financial pressure on domestic power plants, which have limited ability to increase power prices in the Chinese market. 

But in the long term, China plans to reduce coal consumption by accelerating the development of renewables and nuclear energy. China’s latest renewables plan aims for about 100 gigawatts of wind and solar per year until 2025. This is roughly double the pace of installations committed to in its 2021 Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Depending on the pace of economic growth, this may even be enough to cover increases in energy demand over that same period.

The recent volatility in global fossil energy markets has been a boon for coal exporters. But in the long term, it will only aid the phase-out of coal, as policymakers in importing countries are seeing an increased appeal in accelerating clean energy transitions for environmental, economic and energy security reasons.

Jorrit Gosens is Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy and the Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific (ZCEAP) Grand Challenge at the Australian National University.

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