Coal plant retirements must be ramped up to meet climate goals

Despite the number of operating and planned coal power plants falling across the world last year, Global Energy Monitor (GEM) has warned this trend needs to be speeded up by nearly five times to meet climate goals.

With the exception of China, the number of coal plants dropped in both developed and developing countries in 2022 as existing facilities were retired and planned projects cancelled.

But the pace of retirements needs to move four and half times faster – and new coal plants must stop being built – in order to put the world on track to phase out coal power by 2040, as required to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

The report finds that coal power capacity retirements reached 26 gigawatts (GW) in 2022, and another 25GW received an announced close-by date of 2030.

The amount of planned coal-fired capacity in developing countries, excluding China, fell by 23GW. However, China’s planned capacity increased by 126GW, far offsetting changes in the rest of the world.

Last year, the Chinese Government began promoting coal power and increased production capacity in an effort to revive a sluggish economy amid rising gas prices spurred by the conflict in Ukraine.

To stay on track, all existing coal plants must be retired by 2030 in the world’s richest countries, and by 2040 everywhere, and there is no room for any new coal plants to come online, GEM said.

With coal being the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, the UK is already planning to close all power plants that use it by 2024 as part of its efforts to meet its climate target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, the National Grid was forced to ask energy firms to start warming three coal power stations earlier this year as sub-zero temperatures increased electricity demand amid continued tight fuel supplies.

Phasing out operating coal power by 2040 globally would require an average of 117GW of retirements per year, or four and a half times the capacity retired last year.

An average of 60GW must come offline in OECD countries each year to meet their 2030 coal phase-out deadline, and for non-OECD countries, 91GW each year for their 2040 deadline. Accounting for coal plants under construction and in consideration (537GW) would require even steeper cuts.

The report found that total coal power capacity under development – including pre-construction and construction stages – has remained relatively level since 2019 after a significant collapse from highs in 2014. The figure hit a record low of 479GW in 2021, but inched back up to 537GW in 2022, a 12 per cent one-year increase led by China.

“The more new coal projects come online, the steeper the cuts and commitments need to be in the future,” said Flora Champenois, lead author of the report.

“At this rate, the transition away from existing and new coal isn’t happening fast enough to avoid climate chaos. The IPCC and the UN have both renewed the marching order to wind down coal power globally in what may be our last chance to avoid the worst of a warming planet’s harms.”

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