Global coal slowdown not enough to hit critical climate targets

The world is moving away from coal power too slowly to meet pivotal targets on limiting global warming, a report has warned.

There are over 2,400 coal-fired power stations operating in 79 countries and, despite UN-backed scientists urging governments to end expansion in any form of fossil fuels, many more projects are planned.

In total, an additional 176 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity is under construction at more than 189 plants and a further 280 GW is planned at 296 plants.

But while the total number of coal-fired power stations is still rising, the figure for new projects in 2021 represents the lowest rise on record, falling by around 13 per cent, from 525GW down to 457GW, according to analysis by Global Energy Monitor.

The report found 34 countries have new coal plants under consideration, down from 41 countries in January 2021.

Nonetheless, this fall is not enough to bring runaway global warming to heel, and steeper cuts are needed to achieve climate goals, the report’s authors said.

“The directive for a fighting chance at a livable climate is clear – stop building new coal plants and retire existing ones in the developed world by 2030, and the rest of the world soon after.

“Progress must happen faster to meet the clear demands of climate science for a radical coal phase down within this decade,” the report said.

The world also saw an increase in coal – the most polluting of the fossil fuels – as part of a post-Covid rebound over 2021, with the operating coal fleet growing by 18.2GW as countries slowed coal-fired powerplant retirements.

“Despite progress at Cop26, coal’s last gasp is not yet in sight,” the report states.

In 2021, the operating coal fleet grew by 18.2 GW, a post-Covid rebound in a year that saw a slowdown in coal plant retirements. China continued to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development.

“At a time when developed countries should be helping the rest of the world both end new coal plant construction and begin their coal transitions in earnest, many are instead planning to operate their coal plants at home far beyond the deadlines required by climate science and are clinging on to the false promise of “clean coal” technologies.”

More than half (56 per cent) of the 45 gigawatts of newly commissioned coal capacity was in China, the report said.

In 2021 the Chinese started construction of 33 GW of new coal power plants – the most since 2016 and almost three times as much as the rest of the world put together.

Meanwhile in the US, the rate at which coal-fired power stations were retired fell.

Back in 2015, the country hit a record 21.7 GW of coal-fired power stations switched offline, but this fell to 16.1 GW in 2019, then to 11.6 GW in 2020, and only between 6.4 – 9 GW in 2021.

To meet climate goals, the US needs to retire 25 GW annually on average between now and 2030.

Flora Champenois, lead author of the report said: “The coal plant pipeline is shrinking, but there is simply no carbon budget left to be building new coal plants.

“We need to stop, now.”

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