Our fight against climate change seems to be one step forward and two steps back. But maybe, just maybe, this time it could be two steps forward and one step back.
By the middle of last year, countries around the world announced the construction of new coal power plants totaling 476 gigawatts. Considering how much greenhouse gas coal emits, this would make it impossible to meet the world’s climate targets. However, 50% of those projects are set to be canceled, a study found.
Coal is a fossil fuel, and is the most polluting them all, accounting for 0.3°C of the 1°C increase in global average temperatures. This makes it the single largest source of temperature rise.
Around the world, over 2,400 coal-fired plants are now operational, all of which should be shut down by 2040 if we are to avoid temperatures rising over 1.5°C.
No doubt, if we truly want to address climate change, tackling coal is essential. But some parts of the world are still building coal plants.
The challenging path for coal
Researchers from the climate research institute MCC looked at official announcements from countries regarding coal power, which are compiled by the US information service Global Energy Monitor. They found much fewer coal power plants will be installed in the coming years than expected due to a diverse number of reasons.
“It’s important to have a realistic appreciation of the increase in power plants that still lies ahead,” Jan Steckel, study co-author and researcher at MCC, said in a media statement. “Planning, and even construction of new plants may be put on hold if, for example, changes occur in finance, national energy strategies, or costs of renewables.”
For their study, the researchers worked with a group of 29 knowledgeable experts from 10 countries that account for 90% of the new coal power plants under construction or planned: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. The researchers contacted these experts to provide expertise on their countries.
The most cancelations of projects are expected to happen in Bangladesh and Mongolia, and the least in China – which wasn’t a big surprise. Last year, China approved the highest number of new coal-fired power plants since 2015, according to a report earlier this year. These accounted for 106GW, of which 50GW is already under construction.
The researchers identified several reasons for the expected changes in countries’ coal plans. As well as technical and commercial aspects, the political economy of coal, such as regional jobs and taxes, also had an important role. Renewable energy, especially solar and wind, is getting cheaper every day, which makes coal not the best move ahead.
Overall, the study found around 215GW of new-coal fired power plant capacity will be installed in the 10 countries examined. “One way to deal with the newly built plants would be to limit their lifetime to 15 years. If that succeeded, the 1.5-degree limit would still be well within reach,” Lorenzo Montrone, study lead author, said in a statement.
Countries committed to phase down unabated coal power at the climate conference COP27 in Egypt last year, not reaching a commitment to go beyond coal. The next climate summit, COP28, will be hosted in Saudi Arabia in December. The summit’s president, Sultan Al Jaber, said last week that fossil fuels still have a role to play in the climate crisis, which doesn’t bode well for our climate ambitions.
As for China, the country’s expansion of renewable energy is spectacular, but renewable energy doesn’t do all that much when so much of your energy still comes from coal. If we are to truly stop climate change, then China (and everyone else) has to stop relying on this abysmal source of energy.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.