climate change energy

Who is still building coal power in 2021?

Coal power has collapsed in Britain in the last decade. It’s in decline in the US. The economics of coal have shifted so profoundly that 27% of coal power around the world is making a loss. The benefits to this collapse are enormous. It is cutting carbon emissions, delivering cleaner air and improving health. Through respiratory illnesses, cancer, mining accidents and so forth, coal kills a million people a year around the world – at an average of 30 people for every terrawatt hour.

It was coal that ushered in the industrial revolution, and the many benefits that brought humanity. But we can do better. We have to do better, because to keep going with coal will lead to catastrophic climate change. It’s time to move on from coal.

That begs the question: in 2021, knowing what we know, where is coal power still being built?

And there’s a relatively simple answer: Asia. 80% of new coal power is planned in just five countries, according to this new report from Carbon Tracker. Here are those five, with the amount of new capacity currently planned.

  • China – 187 GW
  • India – 59 GW
  • Indonesia – 23 GW
  • Vietnam – 23 GW
  • Japan – 8 GW

Taken at face value, these are depressing figures. They threaten global climate targets, and it puts the blame for doing so squarely on Asia – as many commentators have been quick to do for years. But it’s important to put those numbers in context.

First of all, any time we’re talking about Asia, we’re talking about huge populations. With nearly 1.4 billion people each, it should be a surprise to us when China or India don’t lead the world in the consumption or production of something. So to get a true sense of things, we should always consider per capita statistics as well. And here’s what coal power per person looks like around the world:

This is important. Big countries need big amounts of stuff. But if you look at it in per capita terms, coal power consumption is not disproportionate. Per person, Australia is worse than China, and so was the US until very recently. It also puts growth elsewhere into perspective.

Secondly, these growth figures don’t show us net increase in coal capacity. Where coal power is well established, new capacity may be replacing older plants rather than expanding overall generation. In the graph above, we can see that coal power in India isn’t rising right now. Globally, coal power is being retired faster than it is being built – and for the first time global capacity shrank in 2020.

2020 was of course an unusual year, so we’ll have to see whether that really is the moment of peak coal. The graph above suggests a trend. Construction of new coal power – the pink boxes above – has been in decline.

Something else that this graph shows us is that planning coal expansion doesn’t necessarily mean coal expansion. Given the changing economics of coal and the risk of these new plants becoming stranded assets, there’s a good chance that many of them will never be built. The number of proposed coal power plants has been slashed around the world, with a string of countries turning their backs on the fuel.

For example, this time last year the top five would have included Turkey rather than Japan. It has since cancelled its plans. China has been a big financer and builder of coal power overseas, but of all the projects in the pipeline, 4.5 times more are being cancelled than are being built. India and Indonesia might feature in the top five for planned coal capacity, but they are also in the top five for scrapping proposed coal projects.

Finally, those numbers don’t show us the energy mix for each country. If we look at what China actually brought onto the grid in 2020, more wind power was built (71 GW) than coal and gas combined (56 GW), with a further 48 GW of solar power. These are crazy numbers. In 2010 China added twice as much wind power capacity as the entire planet had in 2010. It is true that China leads the world in coal, but it leads the world in every kind of power. And if we look ahead, it has twice as much nuclear power planned as it does coal.

None of this is to excuse or explain away anyone’s plans for coal. Nobody should be building coal power in the 2020s. But when you hear the subject mentioned, be wary of anyone who is either a) panicking or b) blaming Asia for climate change. It’s more complicated, more interesting and more hopeful than that.

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