The global capacity of power plants fired by coal rose last year as the world recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a major new research report by respected US environmental group Global Energy Monitor.
The world has more than more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants operating in 79 countries, for a total of nearly 2,100 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, according to the report. An additional 176 GW of coal capacity is under construction at more than 189 plants, and 280 GW is planned at 296 plants. It says that the directive for a fighting chance at a liveable 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, according to studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA), among others.
According to the report, a long line of coal dominoes fell in 2021. COP26, the biggest climate change summit of the last five years, concluded in Glasgow in November 2021:
“The summit’s coal outcomes did not involve any timelines nor consensus for a total coal phase-out. Nonetheless, if fully implemented, the commitments made in the run-up to and during the summit mark a breakthrough in the global effort to phase out coal and reduce power sector emissions. The number of coal plants effectively given a close-by date nearly doubled to 750 coal plants (550 GW). Only 170 plants (89 GW), or 5% of the operating fleet today, are not covered by a phase-out date or carbon neutrality target. Still, few of these plants are scheduled to retire on the timelines required by the Paris climate agreement.”
The Chinese exception
“Despite progress at COP26, coal’s last gasp is not yet in sight. 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.”
“In addition, the amount of electricity generated from coal rose by 9% in 2021 to a record high, more than rebounding from a 4% fall in 2020 when COVID first struck. Both the global coal capacity increase and the record rise in coal power generation in 2021 crystallise how important the agreement at Glasgow to phase-down coal was— and how far many key players have to go.”
KEY DEVELOPMENTS OF 2021
- Countries announced an unprecedented number of coal phase-out, “no new coal,” “no new coal/fossil financing overseas,” and “net zero” emissions commitments at COP26, with the number of coal plants effectively given a close-by date nearly doubling to 750 coal plants (550 GW).
- Only 180 GW of existing coal capacity in the OECD, or a little more than a third, is scheduled to close by 2030 in line with the Paris climate agreement. The amount would increase to two-thirds of capacity if announcements made by the United States and Ger- many result in a 2030 coal phaseout.
- Less than 10% of non-OECD coal capacity is scheduled to close by 2050, the year that coal should be phased out to hold warming below 1.5 degrees, according to the IPCC.
- 34 countries have proposed coal plants, down from 41 countries in January 2021.
- Japan, South Korea, and China all 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.
- Globally, the operating coal fleet grew by 18.2 GW in 2021. More than half (56%) of the 45 GW of newly commissioned capacity was in China. Outside China, the global coal fleet shrank for the fourth year in a row, although at a slower rate than in 2020.
- After rising in 2020 for the first time since 2015, total coal power capacity under development declined again from 525 GW to 457 GW, a 13% decrease. Pre-construction coal capacity stands at 280 GW globally, equivalent to the current operating fleets of the United States and Japan combined.
- By the end of 2021, 176 GW of coal capacity was under construction in 20 countries, which is slightly less than in 2020 (181 GW). China represented more than half (52%) of that capacity for the first time, and countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia about a third (37%).
- In China, construction started on 33 GW of new coal power plants in 2021, the most since 2016 and almost three times as much as the rest of the world put together.
- In 2021, the amount of U.S. coal capacity 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 climate goals, the U.S. needs to retire 25 GW annually on average between now and 2030, which is close to the historic 21.7 GW the country retired in 2015.
- 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.
- Power overcapacity and/or debt burdens are growing in countries with coal under development, like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan, highlighting the need to accelerate financial and other support mechanisms to enable clean energy transitions.
- Recent proposals in countries like the United States, Japan, and Australia involve the use of carbon capture and other “clean coal” technologies to extend the life of outdated plants or rationalize new plants. Given the limited role these technologies have played in lowering coal plant emissions, they are effectively uncertain and expensive distractions from the urgent need to phase out coal.
The above is a summary of the main findings of the report. To read the full report, click here.