Multiple coal-fired power plants have been closed over the past year

Close 3,000 coal units by 2030 to keep Paris Agreement goals

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to research by climate think tank TransitionZero, the world will need to shut down almost 3,000 coal units by the end of the decade if it is to have any chance of retaining temperature rises to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The report was published just days ahead of world leaders gathering in Glasgow for COP26. More than other fossil fuels, coal may prove to be the most contentious issue as the most polluting of fossil fuels whilst still being a major driver of economic growth in much of the world.

There is currently more than 2,000GW of unabated coal-fired power in operation, according to Global Energy Monitor. This must be almost halved by the end of the decade, requiring the closure of almost one coal unit every day from now until 2030. Operating coal units are currently on average 314MW in size, according to Global Energy Monitor data.

There was a record number of coal station retirements in 2020. However, there must be a more than threefold increase in the amount of coal capacity closed in the past decade to meet the 1.5°C target considered critical for protecting small island nations from climate impacts such as rising sea levels.

Matt Gray, author of the report, said: “The logical conclusion is that half of the effort will need to come from China.”

China owns around half the world’s coal-fired power stations. In the first half of 2021, the Chinese government committed to a series of carbon-intensive steel and coal projects - 18 new blast furnaces and 43 new coal plant units - which could collectively emit carbon emissions equivalent to the total emissions of the Netherlands. This year, Chinese premier Xi Jinping pledged to end new foreign coal projects and to start cutting domestic coal use after 2025.

China has quickly reduced the share of coal in its total energy mix from 72.4 per cent in 2005 to 56.8 per cent in 2020, although absolute consumption volume is on the rise.

In recent weeks, an energy crisis has forced some industrial shutdowns in China. This and similar challenges have prompted accelerated energy industry reform; for instance, a policy introduced in October aimed at forcing coal-fired plant operators to sell electricity via the wholesale market will expose them to market forces and competitive from renewables. This could be the “final nail in the coffin” for new coal investment in the country, the report said.

Gray said: “I think it is fair to say that keeping the lights on and keeping the buildings warm will be the exclusive priority of the Chinese government coming into winter. Our hope is for this crisis to be seen as a wake-up call for being reliant on coal-fired power.”

The TransitionZero report is upbeat about the potential for one nation to make a difference, stating: “Half of the world’s coal plants are in China and the nation has already shown an ability to act decisively and comprehensively to decarbonise its energy grid. China is already a world leader in the production, deployment and financing of green energy.”

Meanwhile, a report from five green groups has called for climate finance to rise sharply to $5tn annually by 2030, in order to fund measures to fight climate change. The study found that progress is lagging in all sectors on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the pace required by the Paris Agreement.

“Climate finance is trending upward, but not nearly at the speed required,” said Surabi Menon, vice president of global intelligence at US-based ClimateWorks Foundation. “It’s imperative to support [developing] countries with the financial and technological resources they need in order to equitably address climate change on a global scale.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles