The global coal boom finally seems to be winding down

Since 2000 or so, China — along with, to a lesser extent, India and other developing nations — has been on a coal binge, building coal-fired power plants at a breakneck pace. Coal is what powered the country’s ludicrous, double-digit growth rates and lifted millions of rural Chinese out of poverty. And coal power, more than any other single factor, is what has driven the steady rise in global carbon emissions. If the coal binge continues, global climate targets will almost certainly be out of reach, and much of the good done by coal will be undone by the ravages of climate change. Happily, there are signs that the binge is winding down. Researchers from Coalswarm, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace — drawing on the Global Coal Plant Tracker — have just released their latest annual “Boom and Bust” report on the global coal pipeline. Brad Plumer wrote about the same report last year, and it was mostly bad news. But a great deal changed in 2016. Though the big picture remains daunting, the shift from last year to this year is fairly astonishing. It offers a ray of hope. Here’s what happened with coal plants around the world, year on year, from 2016 to 2017. Pre-construction activity (planning, permitting, etc.) was down a whopping 48 percent. In January 2016, there was 1,090 GW worth of coal capacity in pre-construction planning; as of January 2017, it had fallen to 570 GW. Work in ongoing coal plant construction projects was down 19 percent. In China and India alone, scattered across more than 100 sites, some 68 GW worth of coal plant construction was frozen in place. In fact, across the world, “more construction is now frozen than entered construction in the past year,” per the report. Construction starts — new coal plants entering construction — were down by 62 percent. Meanwhile, especially in the US and Europe, coal plants are retiring, to the tune of about 64 GW worth in the past two years.