The number of new coal plants worldwide is shrinking, but not nearly fast enough

Image: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
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The world is walking away from coal. But to meet the targets for limiting global warming set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement, it must pick up the pace.

According to a report published yesterday (pdf) by Greenpeace, CoalSwarm, and the Sierra Club, the number of new coal plants being developed around the world continued to decline between 2015 and 2017. As of January, the world had seen a 29% year-on-year drop in construction starts, and a 73% drop in them in the past two years, according to the report (p. 4). Meanwhile, the number of newly completed coal plants fell 28% year-on-year in 2017.

“With declining deployment and high levels of retirement, coal power capacity is now caught in a squeeze: if current trends continue, by 2022 yearly retirements will exceed new capacity and the global coal fleet will begin to shrink,” notes the report (pdf, p. 3).

What happens in China and India is of vital importance. China continues to be the leading country in coal production and consumption. It added 34 gigawatts of capacity from coal plants in 2017. But, in a promising sign, that was around half its capacity increase in 2015, according to the report (p. 8). India added 9 GW to its total capacity last year, a sharp decline from 2016.

In recent years China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, has been particularly aggressive in addressing its coal overcapacity and related air pollution problems. Last year the central government stopped or delayed work on about 150 planned coal-fired power plants, and since last autumn it’s been directing northern cities to use natural gas rather than coal for heating homes. India, also faced with acute environmental challenges, is marching toward clean energy as well. In the financial year 2016-2017, it added more renewable energy capacity than thermal power capacity—a first, notes the report (p. 9)

Yet the world needs to do more to meet the target set out in the 2015 Paris agreement, which calls for limiting global warming this century to an increase of between 1.5°C and 2°C. The report suggests canceling all current development of coal plants, and retiring many of the existing plants before they reach the end of their lifespan, about 40 years on average.

Meanwhile there are troubling signs. Global coal demand increased 1% in 2017 (pdf, p. 7), following two years of declines, according to a report by the International Energy Agency published this month. China saw a 0.3% increase in coal demand after three years of declines, driven mostly by the desire for air-conditioning during a particularly hot summer.

Meanwhile, the report notes, global carbon emissions grew by 1.4% last year, due mainly to output by Asian countries.