State of Global Coal Power report identifies areas for immediate climate action and coal reduction to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement

by Renuka Pai

Growing concerns surrounding global temperature rise and climate instability has created a sense of urgency among the international community, national and subnational leaders, companies, and citizen groups to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, and one of the largest opportunities to do so is through a reduction in coal power usage.

The Center for Global Sustainability today released a report that analyzes what impact existing and future coal power has on the world meeting the national and global goals of the Paris Agreement. Their primary findings include:

  • While coal power has reduced in some areas, overall there has been a growth in coal use world-wide with large amounts of proposed new capacity in key developing countries such as China, India, and Indonesia
  • Reversing the coal expansion through cancellation of a large fraction of these proposed plants is still possible, and will be essential to reach near-term Paris goals, which include over 195 countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for reducing emissions
  • Countries must accelerate the retirement of existing capacity if we want to meet the key goal of limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C, pre-industrial levels

The report, summary for policymakers, and snapshot were released today at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in New York. Commenting on the summary for policymakers, which was launched in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies:

"Moving off of coal strengthens the economy and saves lives,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action. “We’re making progress, but we need to do more, faster, if we’re going to reach Paris goals and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The data in this report will help make that possible by outlining the scale of the challenge and highlighting opportunities for action."

The CGS report describes the findings of an extensive effort to catalog and assess the impact of proposed coal-fired power plants worldwide. The research team found that a potential 860 GW of coal capacity is likely to be added in the next few years which could be responsible for about 4.6 GtCO2e emissions being released by 2030 - approximately a 10 percent increase in total global emissions. Significant changes will be needed to close the emission gap while also limiting global warming to well below below 2°C. Countries would have to either cancel newly proposed coal-fired projects or prematurely cancel them post 2030 in order to get on track with the long-term climate goals.

The project was led by CGS director Nate Hultman and Dr. Ryna Yiyun Cui, a post-doctoral researcher with CGS, and was supported by a grant from the Energy Foundation. Prof. Hultman added, “Continued extensive utilization of coal power is not feasible if we are to reach our long-term global goals for stabilizing the climate. Every new plant built potentially locks in those emissions for decades, or commits those countries to a costly premature shutdown in the near future. We are at a critical moment where we can still choose not to build these plants. It is the right time to back away from these potential mistakes, and move forward toward better alternatives.”

The overarching conclusion of the report is that immediate action will help reduce costs of achieving the Paris goals. “Meeting the global long-term goal of ‘well-below 2°C’ requires a fundamental shift away from coal. Near-term national targets do not retire existing coal fast enough in most developed countries and allow growth in the developing regions,” says Dr. Cui, “This discrepancy calls for enhanced climate ambitions by countries. But more importantly, were today’s energy investment decisions – especially on coal power infrastructure that has a long lifetime – made independently from the long-term climate goals, the needed energy system transformation will be more costly, sudden and deep in the future.”

Taking into account the expected reluctance of project developers to phase out newly built capital investments before their useful lifetime has ended, the analysis has also delved into three linked research questions: How does the current trend of coal power development deviate from the trajectories that are consistent with meeting the Paris climate goals? If all these proposed projects are implemented, what would the likely impact be on GHG emissions? Are individual countries on track to complete the goals of their NDCs as well as contribute to the global goal of keeping temperatures well below 2°C?

Furthermore, with the United States announcing its intent to leave the Paris Agreement, many state, local, and private actors have stepped up to compensate for the Federal pro-coal policies that are at odds with actions needed for climate change mitigation, thus creating alternative drivers to curb coal use. CGS continues to work to better assess and understand options for addressing climate change that also enhance energy security, economic well being, and health.

The Center for Global Sustainability, based at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, focuses on the integration of research and policy analysis, which in turn informs global, national, and local discussions on climate, energy, economic development, and sustainability.

Renuka Pai is a graduate assistant for the Center for Global Sustainability as she works to earn her Masters in Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

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