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Coal is a word that immediately polarises the community nowadays. Coal has been the mainstay of electricity production since the late 1800s. More than 100 years later, coal-fired generation is a particularly controversial topic in Australia.

Some suggest that we should build new coal-fired power plants with more efficient coal burning technology (therefore producing less emissions) for continuing reliable power generation, while others argue that Australia should proactively abandon coal sooner and replace it with a combination of renewable generators and energy storage. A third argument is that the rapid growth in renewable capacity globally will soon take over coal and other fossil fuel generation as a natural progression and therefore no policy action is required.

No matter which side of the argument you are on, the fact is coal generators produce much more greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt hour (MWh) than most other forms of electricity generation. To the extent that the global community believes that human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are a problem, then it should be worried about the build-up of greenhouse gases over time as it is the atmospheric concentration of these gases that creates adverse climate changes.

To help understand the contribution that electricity generation from sources such as coal have made to current and, more importantly, future atmospheric concentration levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) we attempt to estimate CO2 emissions for the global stock of generation from 1904 to 2017. We also attempt to estimate the future growth in CO2 emissions using highly conservative assumptions that underestimate the future contribution from electricity generation using coal.

The purpose of undertaking this projection is to determine whether concentrations of CO2 are likely to flatten out, grow slowly or rapidly or decline and, at what rate. This projection of CO2 production will help understand whether the growth in generation from renewables is likely to result in a material reduction in the growth in the concentration levels of CO2 or whether more governments should take active steps to avoid further CO2 emissions from thermal power stations.

To help assess whether governments need to actively take action to curtail emissions from coal plants, or other forms of high emission generation, we examine the extent to which the development of renewable capacity, which is often presented as nothing short of miraculous, is likely to be sufficient to abate the emissions from fossil fuel generators. If these new renewables are not sufficient to cap global emissions from other sources of generation and governments have decided that even current emissions are too high, then governments will need to implement policies that actively reduce emissions from the electricity generation sector.

Our report finds this is not the case. To view the full report, download the publication via the button below.