Coal demand on the rebound

Clean Air Asia release a joined opinion statement along with the Asian Clean Fuels Association (ACFA), in which both organizations highlight their observations and express their concerns related the use of coal to fuel Asia’s energy demand.

Coal demand on the rebound  

The COVID-19 pandemic shaped our lives in 2020 and continues to do so in 2021. The full impact of the global pandemic is still unfolding and uncertainty remains high and we know that the impacts on our societies, economies and the environment will be felt for years to come.  And amidst the calls for and commitments to ‘greening the rebound’ and ‘build back better’ the use of coal to fuel our energy demand has come in sharp focus as the pandemic also reshaped the way we use energy. After an initial slump in coal demand and CO2 emissions at the beginning of the pandemic due to lockdowns, restrictions and economic downturns, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that emissions could leap by the second biggest rise on historical record, largely owing to a resurgence of coal following last year’s lockdowns[1]. In its report, IEA estimates that coal demand declined by 4 % in 2020 but also that it will rebound in 2021 with an increase of 4.5%, with rapidly increasing coal-fired energy generation in Asia accounting for three quarters of the rebound.  

This is supported by a recent report by Clean Air Asia, showing that in addition to climate impacts, the use of coal, and coal-fired power plants (CFPs), can pose significant threats to people’s health and the environment from the emission of toxic air pollutants. The report showed that coal power capacity will increase in South and Southeast Asia, increasing air pollutant and carbon dioxide emissions if no controls are implemented. In most countries in these regions, there are weak emission standards for CFPs and poor enforcement of those standards. This places the environment and public health at a higher risk than already being faced, and means that immediate action is needed.[2]

The estimated increase in coal use for energy provision in Asia is, of course, concerning, not least in respect to the need to ‘build back better’ post pandemic, including for cleaner air and a stabilized climate. The increase in coal will have a downstream ripple effect, meaning that decarbonisation of sectors such as transport will be impacted.

Mobility - downstream concerns of increased coal demand

Transport and mobility are critical to sustainable development in Asia and increased carbonization or decarbonization of the energy sector are, likewise, critical to the policy decisions that need to be taken in the coming years to shape the future of transportation in the region.  We know that renewables are central to emission reductions from electricity generation, and they make major contributions to cut emissions from buildings, industry and transport both directly and indirectly. But also, adversely, increased coal demand will create a downstream ‘ripple effect’ where our energy consumption (it being household, mobility or industry) will still be coal dependent. The legitimate concern from a mobility (and electric mobility) point of view will then be the displacement of emissions and pollutants from tailpipe to coal-fired powerplants.

China leads the e-mobility uptake in the region with increasing electric car registrations year on year from 2015 to 2020, except for a slight dip in 2019; it has the largest electric car fleet in the world at 4.5 million electric cars in 2020. China is also the global leader in electric light commercial vehicle, electric bus, and heavy duty truck registrations (IEA Global EV Outlook, 2021). Several Southeast Asian countries have set e-mobility targets, and internal combustion engine (ICE) phase-out plans such as Singapore and Indonesia which will phase-out ICE vehicles by 2040 (Table 1). 

Table 1. Electric vehicle targets of Southeast Asian countries

Source: UNEP & Clean Air Asia (2020). Policy Brief on Role of policymaking in mainstreaming electric mobility in Southeast Asia 


South Asian countries have set similar targets. In India, strong commitment to scale-up electric mobility is found at the state level and the national level. Several states have drafted or are drafting electric vehicle policies. The national government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME) Scheme, now in its second phase, could potentially achieve “EV sales penetration of 70% for commercial cars, 30% for private cars, 40% for buses, and 80% for 2 and 3 wheelers by 2030,” according to a study by NITI Aayog and Rocky Mountain Institute. For Pakistan, its EV targets were set in the 2019 National Electric Vehicles Policy: (a) for cars: 30% of new sales by 2030 and 90% of new sales by 2040; (b) for 2 and 3 wheelers: 50% of new sales by 2030 and 90% of new sales by 2040; (c) for buses: 50% of new sales by 2030 and 90% of new sales by 2040; and (d) for trucks: 30% of new sales by 2030 and 90% of new sales by 2040 (ICCT, 2020 citing South Asia Investor Review, 2019). Other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal are taking steps to encourage e-mobility.

The transition to e-mobility in developing Asian countries is motivated by climate goals, clean air and public health, and energy security. Several Asian countries include the adoption of electric vehicles as part of their nationally determined contribution under the Paris Climate Agreement. Electric vehicles are zero-tailpipe emission vehicles which do not contribute to local air pollution. Shifting to electric mobility enhances energy security by reducing countries’ dependence on fossil fuel imports. 

While the power generation capacity needed to meet the demand from EVs is not expected to pose a major challenge as it will only comprise 1.5% of total electricity demand in 2030, greening road transport will require decarbonization of the electricity that powers EVs. The grid emission factor estimates the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of an EV’s electricity consumption per kilowatt-hour. An ADB publication “E-Mobility Options for ADB Developing Member Countries”[3] states that with a grid emission factor of below 0.8 kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent emission per kilowatt-hour (kgCO2e/kWh), the shift to EVs will result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The GHG emission reduction potential of EV deployment is lower for high carbon grids (above 0.8 kgCO2e/kWh). Countries with high carbon grid factors should prioritize grid decarbonization. 

In addition, life-cycle analysis (LCA) should be a main prism or optic for e-mobility to avoid possible pollution rebounds (e.g., unmanaged battery waste, extraction of raw materials, increased emissions from fossil-fuel based power generation). Recent LCA emissions studies estimate that the emissions of electric vehicles are lower than internal combustion engine vehicle emissions (BloombergNEF, 2021; IEA, 2021a; ICCT, 2021) but also that emissions reduction potential varies depending on for example (in the manufacturing phase) the location of battery cell production and location of material refining. An important aspect which countries need to plan for as part of e-mobility roadmaps is the management of EV battery waste. While second-life batteries from EVs can be a solution to store the fluctuating supply of energy from renewable sources, there is the issue of managing EV batteries that reach end-of-life.

The Way Forward

The end game as set by the International Energy Agency in its new report are clear: Net Zero by 2050. The World Health Organisation equally has set out its stance on air pollution; The acute need to urgently reduce the 7 million premature deaths a year due to air pollution by 2030, as a contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.   

Sustainable transport and mobility have a critical role in achieving both these targets and we see both challenges to, and opportunities for, crafting a sustainable path forward. For e-mobility the challenge, and the opportunity is unique; What does a forward-looking e-mobility roadmap, based on lifecycle perspective, facing the reality of increased coal demand, look like?

To answer this question, we suggest that it is time, and timely, to build on ‘The Roadmap for Cleaner Fuels and Vehicles in Asia’ with a e-mobility roadmap. Such a roadmap should be informed by LCA perspective, the circular economy and interlock with the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ as well as the sustainable development goals – especially those concerned with air pollution and air quality.

As the attention turns from pandemic to recovery, and to a green and sustainable recovery, such a roadmap would be essential to delivering sustainable transport and mobility in the region while also ensuring that we make the right choices to achieve a stabilised climate and cleaner air for all.



[1] IEA (2021), Global Energy Review 2021, IEA, Paris

[2] Clean Air Asia (2020)

[3] ADB (2019), E-Mobility Options for ADB Developing Member Countries,…