The number of coal-fired power plants in the pipeline around the world will decline in 2021, according to research published Tuesday, but the fossil fuel most responsible for global warming still generated record CO2 emissions, threatening Paris climate goals.
Since the 195-nation treaty was signed in 2015, coal-fired power capacity under construction or scheduled to be developed has shrunk by three-quarters, including a 13 percent year-on-year decline in 2021 to 457 gigawatts (GW).
Globally, there are more than 2,400 coal-fired power plants operating in 79 countries, with a total capacity of 2,100 GW.
A record low of 34 countries have new coal plants under consideration, down from 41 in January 2021, according to Global Energy Monitor’s annual report, Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline.
China, Japan and South Korea, all historical backers of coal development outside their borders, have pledged to stop funding new coal plants in other countries, though concerns remain about potential loopholes in China’s commitment.
And yet, the global coal-fired power operating fleet grew in 2021 by 18 GW, and as of December, an additional 176 GW of coal-fired capacity was being built, roughly the same as the previous year.
Most of that growth is in China, which accounts for just over half of the new coal-fired power in the pipeline. South and Southeast Asia are responsible for another 37 percent.
Three-quarters of the new coal-fired power plants that started last year were in China, where newly commissioned capacity offset coal plant retirements in all other nations combined.
“Coal plant pipeline is shrinking, but there is simply no carbon budget left to build new coal plants,” said Flora Champenois of Global Energy Monitor. “We have to stop, now.”
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have warned that having a fighting chance to limit global warming to habitable levels means no new coal-fired power plants and a swift phase-out of existing ones.
Rich countries must do so by 2030 and most of the rest of the world by 2040, they said.
Many emerging economies (India, Vietnam, Bangladesh) have scaled back plans for new coal-fired capacity.
“In China, plans for new coal-fired power plants have continued to be announced,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air and a co-author of the report.
China, by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has promised to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060.
In the United States, efforts to reduce coal use have slowed, the report showed.
The amount of US coal capacity retired in 2021 fell for the second consecutive year, from 16.1 GW in 2019 to 11.6 GW in 2020, to an estimated 6.4 to 9.0 GW last year .
To meet its own climate goals, the United States would need to retire 25 GW annually between now and 2030.
The European Union retired a record 12.9 GW in 2021, including 5.8 GW in Germany, 1.7 GW in Spain and 1.9 GW in Portugal, which became coal-free in November 2021, nine years before the scheduled disposal date.