The Global Coal Boom Is Going Bust: Report

March 18, 2015

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A new report by CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club provides compelling evidence that the death knell for the global coal boom might very well have rung some time between 2010 and 2012.

Based on data CoalSwarm compiled of every coal plant proposed worldwide for the past five years as part of its Global Coal Plant Tracker initiative, the report finds that for every coal plant that came online, plans for two other plants were put on hold or scrapped altogether.

The failure-to-completion rate was even higher, as much as 4 to 1, in Europe, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, according to the report, which also says that the long decline in coal-fired energy production in the United States and the European Union can be expected to speed up in the near future.

“From 2003 to 2014, the amount of coal-fired generating capacity retired in the US and the EU exceeded new capacity by 22 percent. With most new capacity plans halted and large amounts of capacity slated for retirement, reductions in coal capacity are expected to accelerate.”

The CoalSwarm and Sierra Club researchers also found that there is very little money being invested in India to build new coal plants. In the past few years, there were six plants canceled for every plant built in the country, and that rate is not likely to slow down: “Although 69 GW (gigawatts) of capacity is still under construction due to a surge in construction starts prior to 2012,” they wrote, “less than 10 GW of new construction has started since mid-2012.” They cite popular opposition and coal supply issues for the fact that coal financing has dried up.

Meanwhile, China’s coal fleet is operating at its lowest level in decades, averaging just 54% of total capacity in 2014. The authors warn that even though the number of coal-fired power plants proposed in China fell by half from 2006 to 2014, there are still so many projects in the works that the country risks stranding a lot of capital in underutilized coal plants if it doesn’t start canceling even more.

Overall, the amount of new coal-fired generating capacity proposed worldwide declined by 23 percent, which, as the report states, has major implications for any attempts to rein in global carbon emissions: “Due to the long lifespan of coal plants, typically 40 years or more, large coal capacity additions represent a particularly serious threat to climate stability.”

In a statement emailed to DeSmog, the Sierra Club’s Cindy Carr said, “As we move toward the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris this December and continue to see nations taking climate action — from the U.S.-China deal to Indian Prime Minister Modi pledging solar for all by 2019 to the UK pledging to phase out the use of coal — it’s clear that the bust of the coal boom means there is even more space to work toward a meaningful agreement for all nations.”

But evidence of the decline of coal is good news for more than just the climate. Public health suffers as a result of burning coal, which creates fine particle pollution that is blamed for as many as 800,000 premature deaths every year.

And the economic damage from one metric ton of CO2 emissions has been estimated to be as much as $242, as the report states. A typical coal plant generates about 4.4 million metric tons of CO2 every year.

Image Credit: Nneirda /

Mike Gaworecki

Mike Gaworecki is an activist, writer, and musician who lives in San Francisco. He is the online campaigner for RAN's Forests program.

Tags: climate change, coal production, environmental effects of coal use