Carbon relief as more coal power plants close than open

Coal power is in decline with new figures showing that for the first time more coal-fired power plants closed this year than were opened.

The fossil-fuel, carbon-emitting plants have been the target for a sustained campaign, particularly in Europe. They emit around twice the carbon dioxide of a modern gas fired power station. In Britain we now have only four coal power stations functioning.

Global Energy Monitor data shows that coal generators being shut down mainly in Europe and in the US in the first six months of this year outnumbered those being commissioned.

These new plants are largely in Asia, according to the US-based research and advocacy group which tracks fossil fuel development.

Coal free

In the first half of the year 18.3GW of coal power was commissioned while 21.2GW was decommissioned. The EU witnessed around 8.3GW of the closures, with Spain closing half its plants. In Britain we have shut a third of our coal capacity and celebrated going coal-free for two months. In the US, even with the Trump support for coal, 5.4GW of coal capacity was shut.

Japan opened 1.8GW while announcing plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units, and Germany commissioned the 1.1GW Datteln coal plant, but the country is committed to decommission all coal by 2038.

About 72GW of planned new coal was cancelled in the first half of the year, the bulk of it in India and China, but 190GW remains under construction.

China is the biggest annual greenhouse gas emitter with half the world’s operating coal-fired electricity capacity. The second largest economy globally is driving coal power development and has built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants. It has almost 90% of generators under construction.

Pandemic fallout

But there are signs of hope and change. The coal plant tracker database just released shows that the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40 per cent below the same period last year – 19.4 gigawatts compared with 11.4GW. This is a result of lower demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

António Guterres, UN secretary general, recently urged China to stop funding coal projects, warning the Paris climate agreement goals would not be met if the world didn’t deliver a green recovery.

Guterres said in Beijing last month during a lecture series titled “Climate governance in the post-pandemic world” that economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was a “make-or-break moment” for the planet.

China’s actions could determine whether the world limits warming to 1.5C, the tougher target of the Paris goal on which the survival of vulnerable nations depends.

Guterres said:

“As an economic superpower, the way in which China restores growth will have a major impact on whether we can keep 1.5C within reach.”

Guterres, championing a green recovery from the pandemic economic fallout, said the trillions of dollars being spent on economic reconstruction could “either serve as a slingshot to hurtle climate action forward, or it can set it back many years”.

Renewable targets

There is more good news from India, according to the monitor’s figures. New coal power construction nearly halted in India, as it shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi oversaw the commissioning of 0.9GW of coal generation while 1.2GW were closed and more than 27GW of proposals were cancelled.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York last year to double India’s renewable target to 450GW by 2030, up from around 87GW installed capacity today. The bulk will come from solar panels.

Adding solar electricity stands at about 2.5 rupees per unit generated, compared with around 4.5 rupees for new coal capacity. Even coupled with more expensive batteries to store electricity for after dark, solar energy was auctioned at a cheaper price than new coal earlier this year.

And the coal sector in India has been faced with cashflow challenges over the past few years, with most plants running well under capacity.

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal programme director said:

“I think this could definitely be a moment where things have slowed down enough that countries rethink their coal plan. The big question mark is China, and what it announces it will do in its 14th five-year plan.”

Announcing the new figures, she said that the decline across the globe was driven by the economic slowdown and record levels of decommissioning prompted by carbon price rises and tightening of pollution regulation. Coal-fired generation has already fallen by an estimated 3 per cent last year.

Clean energy

She added that countries now had a good opportunity to reassess energy plans in the knowledge that clean energy was now the cheapest option in many places.

China coal power capacity was so great before the virus appeared that its plants were running at barely half capacity. But this did not stop construction permits being granted at the highest rate since 2016.

The aggressive expansion plans for dirty coal stands in sharp contrast to countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Egypt which have pledged to significantly scale back on coal in favour renewable energy and gas development.

Scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest the need for energy generation from coal to fall 50% below current levels within a decade to secure the path to keeping global heating within 2C of pre-industrial levels. About 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5C.

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