Old king coal loses crown as worldwide phase-out campaign gains momentum

A combination of community resistance, phase out commitments by governments, cities and businesses, and rapid cost reductions in renewable energy has resulted in a huge slump in construction of new coal plants. CATHERINE EARLY reports

From a climate and health perspective, the trend toward a declining coal power fleet is encouraging, but not happening fast enough. 

Construction of new coal-fired power plants has tumbled by 73 percent in just two years, according to new analysis which also predicts that the global fleet will start to shrink from 2022.

The rapid-moving trend of decline in coal plant development is spelled out in a report published today by Greenpeace, the Global Coal Plant Tracker and US environmental organisation the Sierra Club.

Almuth Ernsting argues that Britain's coal phase out plan has "three dangerous loopholes".

They found that the number of coal plants under development worldwide dropped for the second year in a row - largely due to changes in China and India - both of which have dominated coal plant development over the past decade.

Phase-out campaign

China has tightened restrictions on the development of coal plants following an oversupply of power as the country ramped up its renewable energy generation. This has led to the suspension of an estimated 444GW of coal-fired capacity under various stages of development in the country.

In India, a 50 percent fall in the cost of renewable energy in two years has led financiers to withdraw support for coal, leaving 17GW of coal plant halted mid-construction.

Globally, the researchers found that between 2015 and 2017, newly completed coal plants fell by 41 percent, construction starts reduced by 73 percent, while permitting and planning was down by 59 percent.

The report also revealed that an all-time record of 97GW of coal plants retired in the past three years, led by the US (45GW), China (16GW) and UK (8GW). Retirements of old coal plants will surpass new coal power capacity by 2022, the researchers predicted.

A worldwide coal phase-out campaign is gaining momentum, with commitments from 34 countries and city or state authorities. In 2017, only seven countries initiated new coal power construction at more than one location.

The smokestack

However, the report warned that projected lifetime emissions from existing coal plant fleet will continue to exceed the carbon budget for coal needed to meet the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In order to keep coal emissions within that budget, further building must be ended and existing plants must be retired at an accelerated pace, the campaigners said.

From a climate and health perspective, the trend toward a declining coal power fleet is encouraging, but not happening fast enough. 

“From a climate and health perspective, the trend toward a declining coal power fleet is encouraging, but not happening fast enough,” said Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm. “Fortunately, mass production is cutting solar and wind costs much faster than expected, and both financial markets and power planners worldwide are taking notice.”

Meanwhile, the 200m smokestack of the former Kingsnorth coal plant in Kent is due to be demolished today. The chimney is all that remains of the coal power station, which a decade ago, became the focal point of a huge public campaign to stop new coal plants being built in Britain.

In 2007, six Greenpeace activists climbed to the top of the smokestack and painted the name of then prime minister Gordon Brown down the side. They were later cleared of causing criminal damage in a trial, after the jury recognised for the first time the potential damage to property from climate change as a reasonable ground for direct action. Energy firm E.ON shelved plans to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth in 2010.

The government subsequently abandoned its proposals for a new fleet of coal plants. In 2007, coal generated 34 percent of the UK’s electricity. A decade later, this has plummeted to just seven percent, with the government now planning to close down the remaining 15.5GW of coal plant by 2025.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.

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