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Coal reduction: The international effort runs into a brick wall in China

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According to a recently released annual survey report prepared by a consortium of several specialised non-profits and think tanks, China continued to increase domestic coal power development in 2021, despite total global coal power capacity under development declining marginally.

“Many emerging economies have scaled back their plans for new coal-fired capacity, with the largest reductions occurring in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Egypt,” according to the report.

In total, there are nearly 2,100 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power plants operating in 79 countries around the world. A total of 176 GW of coal capacity is under construction at over 189 plants, with a total capacity of 280 GW planned at 296 plants.

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CREA, E3G, Sierra Club, SFOC, Kiko Network, CAN Europe, LIFE, and Bangladeshi non-profits are among the members of the consortium, which is led by Global Energy Monitor.

Villain, backseat driver, and front-runner

“Total (global) coal power capacity under development fell 13% last year, from 525 gigawatts (GW) to 457 GW, after rising for the first time since 2015 in 2020… According to the report, “new coal plants are being considered in 34 countries, down from 41 countries in January 2021.”

“China continued to lead all countries in domestic development of new coal plants, commissioning more coal capacity than the rest of the world combined,” according to the report. China accounts for more than half (56%) of the 45 GW of newly commissioned global capacity.

According to the study, “newly commissioned capacity in China (25.2 GW) nearly offset coal plant retirements in the rest of the world (25.6 GW).”

“Outside of China, the global coal fleet shrank for the fourth year in a row, though at a slower rate than in 2020,” the report continued.

The situation in the United States is also not encouraging. The rate of coal capacity retirement has slowed in recent years, from 16.1 GW in 2019 to 11.6 GW in 2020, and then to an estimated 6.4 GW to 9 GW in 2021.

“Continued momentum away from coal must accelerate to meet national energy and climate goals,” according to the report.

India’s new target for clean power capacity will enable the country to start phasing down coal well before 2030, according to an analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Germany topped the chart with 5.8 GW while Spain and Portugal also reduced their coal-based power to the tune of 1.7 and 1.9 GW respectively.

India currently represents 96 per cent (231.9 GW) of South Asia’s total — 239.6 GW — operating coal capacity. In 2021, 6.4 GW of new coal capacity went into operation in the region, mostly in India. During the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Glasgow last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a highly ambitious clean air programme.

Coal use needs to fall by 75 per cent by 2030 (from 2019 levels) to limit global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius – the best possible target, being set in the 2015 Paris Agreement that the world can realistically pursue. “Stop building new coal plants and retire existing ones in the developed world by 2030 and the rest of the world soon after,” says an expert from Global Energy Monitor.

China, Japan, South Korea and China all pledged to end public support for new international coal plants, followed by all G20 countries before the COP26 in Glasgow. Analysis warned that “there is essentially no significant international public financier remaining for new coal plants”. A senior advisor of Climate Action Network (CAN) International alleged that rich countries have been pushing for a coal phase-out but continue to drill for oil and gas.

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