More coal plants are now being cancelled than built

Coal Mine in Wyoming. Creative Commons: Greg Goebel, 2008

Coal Mine in Wyoming. Creative Commons: Greg Goebel, 2008

The construction of coal plants has moved from boom to bust. According to a new report released by the Sierra Club and the research network CoalSwarm, two plants are now being cancelled for every one that is completed.

The recent decline can be attributed to a number of causes including mounting citizen opposition to coal, competition from renewables, and new policy initiatives.

The changes to coal are also unevenly spread throughout the globe. Europe had the highest proportion of canned coal projects while East Asia had the lowest rates, as China continues to build up its coal fleet. One Chinese province alone, Jiangsu, has built almost as much new coal capacity as the whole of the US and the EU combined.

A previous report produced by the World Resources Institute estimated that 1,199 new coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of 1,401 gigawatts were set for construction. The new figures suggest a shrink of 23% to 1,083 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity.

The slowdown comes after a period of strong growth for the dirty fuel. In the last two decades, coal had increased at a stable rate of between 20 to 25 gigawatts every year, with that growth rate tripling between 2005 and 2012.

The International Energy Agency’s 2014 Medium Term Coal Market report stated that coal growth in 2013 was substantially lower than the average rate over the last ten years although coal remains the fastest growing fossil fuel in the world.

The cancelled coal plants would have emitted 88,204 million tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime.

However, while these new figures represent an improvement, more cuts are needed in order to prevent global warming above the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. There is still 1,083 gigawatts of coal capacity in the pipeline, exceeding the carbon budget set by scientists.This budget gives an overall limit to the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted to prevent the worst consequences of global warming.

According to an article published in the scientific journal Nature, 80% of the world’s coal reserves need to stay in the ground to meet this goal. The International Energy Agency says that the amount of energy that the world gets from coal needs to fall by around a third by 2040 if the world is to hold warming to below the 2 degrees Celsius target.

The cancellation of coal plants has already caused a headache for investors in the industry, but overall the economic picture may not be so bleak: Global carbon emissions stalled in 2014, and did so for the first time ever without the presence of an economic crisis.

The oil price shock and US recession in the early 1980s, the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the 2008 global financial crisis all caused emissions to drop. But 2014 is the first time the amount of CO2 pumped out flatlined, remaining at the 2013 level of 32.3 billion tonnes, while the global economy grew by 3%.

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