Will Coal Production Stand in Way of Long-Term Climate Goal?

resized coal plant

As negotiators at the Paris climate summit work to hammer out language surrounding the “long-term goal” that will seek to completely or nearly phase out fossil fuels in the second half of the century, a new report from Climate Action Tracker shows coal may stand in the way of that plan.

The “Coal Gap” report released on the sidelines of the Paris talks showed that coal production from existing plants would produce 50 percent more emissions than allowable over the next 15 years if the world is to keep global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest level considered to adequate to avoid the worst climate impacts.

Even worse: the report said there are 2,440 coal projects not yet online but in some stage of development around the world. If they all came online, it would overshoot coal-generated emissions on the 2-degree pathway by 400 percent in the next decade and a half.

The “long-term goal” expected to appear in the Paris agreement--the specific language in that part of the text is not yet finalized--aims to keep the world within striking distance of 2 degrees by the end of the century.

“There’s only one solution to the problem of having too many coal plants,” Ecofys researcher Pieter Van Breevoort, one of the report’s authors, said in a briefing announcing the report. “The only thing to do is cancel them.”

That is what authors of the report and other environmentalists have been calling for. The calls have had mixed results: last month, the U.K. said it would phase out coal plants by 2025. The last deep-pit coal mine in that country will close in mid-December. But the report noted that the European Union and eight non-European countries--China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines and Turkey--are all planning to install at least 5 gigawats of new coal capacity in the coming years.

Under most circumstances, coal is the dirtiest mass-produced fossil fuel, but a similar problem exists for other fossil fuels like natural gas and petroleum. For the “long-term goal” to be realized, they will have to be ramped down as well. Existing reserves are already bigger than the carbon budget allows, and yet fuel companies are still pending hundreds of millions to find more.

The report’s authors say they hope that as renewable energy technologies improve and prices drop that will act as a disincentive for traditional fuel choices.

“If renewables take off as fast as is currently expected, many of these planned coal plants could be stranded investments or would have to operate under difficult financial circumstances,” said Markus Hagemann of NewClimate Institute, another of the report’s authors.