Global Coal Plant Development in Freefall

On the heels of the United States retiring its 250th coal-fired power plant yesterday, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and CoalSwarm released our third annual survey of proposed coal plants worldwide, Boom and Bust 2017: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline, and the results are staggering. Spoiler alert: if you are considering investing in coal, think again.

The amount of coal-fired power plants under development dropped dramatically in 2016, including a 48 percent drop in pre-construction activity, a 62 percent drop in construction starts, a 19 percent drop in ongoing construction, and a 29 percent drop in completed projects. In China and India, where industry once forecast unending, exponential growth in coal demand, 68 gigawatts of construction is frozen at over 100 project sites. I cannot overstate how huge this is. Once a project has started construction, there is a massive economic incentive to complete it. The fact that projects are now being halted underscores how dire the situation is for the coal sector. Meanwhile, in the past two years, we have retired 64 gigawatts of coal in the EU and U.S., 35 gigawatts of which were in the U.S. alone.

What do all these numbers mean? They mean it is possible for us to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of holding global climate increase below 2°C, and potentially even the aim of keeping it below 1.5°C if the pace of coal plant retirements accelerates in the world’s richest countries and historic emissions emitters.

The good news is that, despite his blustering rhetoric, Donald Trump cannot change reality. The coal industry is collapsing, with clean energy overtaking coal across the U.S. In 2015, solar and wind accounted for two-thirds of new generating capacity across the country, with the red states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas leading on wind. The bad news? It’s not enough. If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate disruption, we cannot wait for the markets to kill coal. We must continue to demand clean air, healthy communities, and a transition beyond coal to clean energy.

The numbers may be on our side, but as anyone who lives near an existing or proposed coal plant knows, when you are staring down a deadly project it doesn’t feel like the sector is in structural decline. As the coal industry becomes increasingly desperate to find new markets, it often doubles down on corruption, intimidation tactics, and even violence in attempts to suppress resistance.

The report identifies 10 hotspots -- Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam -- which account for 75 percent of the  coal power capacity in preconstruction development outside China and India. In contrast, the remaining 25 percent is spread across 41 countries. These nations represent the frontlines, with local communities bearing the brunt of the industry’s land grabbing and strong-arm tactics. And yet, people are still fighting back.

We have already seen big victories in 2017. A Turkish court ruled in favor of local communities, cancelling the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Izdemir CPP, one of the most polluting coal-fired power plants in the region. People around the world joined a global day of action to show solidarity with Bangladeshi activists protesting the Rampal coal-fired power plant, which threatens the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and critical natural defense protecting millions of people from storm surges and cyclones. The Thai government reversed course and said it would reconsider the environmental and health studies for the Krabi coal plant after four days of protests and arrests following the project's approval. And in Japan, the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) announced the cancellation of a 1,200-megawatt coal project, citing a fall in demand, efficiency improvements, and carbon reduction requirements, after the local governor requested an investigation into the harmful substances in coal.

These are the stories that give me hope and transform hard facts, like those compiled in the Boom and Bust 2017 report, from numbers on a page to something tangible and personal. The report shows that we can stop climate disruption before it’s too late, and communities on the ground are showing us how to do it. Now it’s up to us.

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