Global coal plant capacity shrinking slower than needed to meet climate goals

Global coal plant capacity under development shrank by 13 per cent in 2021, but steeper cuts are needed to achieve net-zero carbon goals, climate experts have said.

A new report from Global Energy Monitor (GEM) reports that after rising in 2020 for the first time since 2015, total coal power capacity under development declined last year from 525 GW to 457 GW, a record low.

But some 34 countries were still found to have new coal plants under consideration, albeit down from 41 countries in January 2021.

The world currently has more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants operating in 79 countries, for a total of nearly 2,100 GW of capacity. An additional 176 GW of coal capacity is under construction at more than 189 plants, and 280 GW is in pre-construction at 296 plants.

China is the most significant financial backer of coal-fired energy plants, and has been ramping up investment in its domestic sector despite committing to a 2060 net-zero target.

However, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to the United Nations General Assembly in September that his country would end overseas coal projects as part of its climate change effort, which has led to the cancellation of 15 coal plants in recent months.

According to the GEM report, the operating coal fleet grew by a net 18.2 GW last year, a post-Covid rebound in a year that saw a slowdown in coal plant retirements. It said that progress must happen faster to meet the demands of climate science for a radical coal phase down before 2030.

The report also found that Japan and South Korea had pledged to end public support for new international coal plants, followed by a commitment from all G20 countries ahead of COP26. With these pledges, there is essentially no significant international public financier remaining for new coal plants.

In 2021, the amount of US coal capacity that retired declined for the second consecutive year, from 16.1 GW in 2019 to 11.6 GW in 2020, to an estimated 6.4 GW to 9 GW in 2021. To meet national energy and climate goals, continued momentum away from coal needs to accelerate, the report said.

The European Union’s 27 member states retired a record 12.9 GW in 2021, with the most retirements in Germany (5.8 GW), Spain (1.7 GW), and Portugal (1.9 GW). Portugal became coal free in November 2021, nine years before its targeted 2030 phase-out date.

“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,” said Flora Champenois, lead author of the report.

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