New coal-fired plants jeopardise Paris Agreement

Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak soon and be reduced practically to zero in the second half of this century in order to not exceed the climate targets adopted in the Paris Agreement. However, there are currently numerous coal-fired power stations around the world at different stages of construction and planning that could be completed in the next decade. If all these plants are actually built, their expected future emissions will make it very difficult to reach these targets, even in an optimistic scenario with the deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies. Policy makers around the world need to react quickly and help to redirect investment plans for new coal-fired power stations towards low-carbon technologies.

In the framework of the TRANSrisk project, Mikel González-Eguino of the Basque Centre for Climate Change BC3 performed computations and scenario analyses on the development of coal-fired power plants. Together with Antxón Olabe and Teresa Ribera (IDDRI), he published the commentary ‘New Coal-Fired Plants Jeopardise Paris Agreement‘ in the Sustainability Journal.

Continuing investment in coal

Figure 1. Existing coal power plant capacity in 2015 (green), under construction in 2016 (blue) and planned (yellow). Based on Shearer et al. (2016).

Figure 1. Existing coal power plant capacity in 2015 (green), under construction in 2016 (blue) and planned (yellow). Based on Shearer et al. (2016).

In spite of the goal set by the international community in Paris, there are still numerous coal-fired power stations currently under construction. Between 2010 and 2015, around 500 coal-fired plants were built globally, with a joint output of 473 Gigawatts (GW), a 25% increase in total power capacity. Moreover, even more new coal-fired stations (see Figure 1) are currently at different stages of construction and planning. Although some of these projects may still be canceled, such as in the case of China where emissions from coal have achieved a peak according to some authors, a large part of them could also be finished within the next decade.

If all the plants currently planned are actually built and become active, their expected future emissions will make it very difficult to reach the targets set in the Paris Agreement. Indeed, emissions from plants already in operation would suffice to exceed the limit of 1.5 C, which guarantees that phase-outs before the end of their useful lifetimes or the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies will be required.

Carbon capture and storage

In theory, CCS could reduce future emissions, but according to the last report of Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013, it has not been applied at the scale of a large, operational commercial fossil fuel power plan, so its future availability is still highly uncertain. Moreover, even if the new coal-fired plants currently on the drawing board were hypothetically fitted with CCS systems, their emissions over the course of their life cycles would not be zero. CCS could be a key technology for a low-carbon future (especially if “negative” emissions are needed in the future), but it seems unwise to continue building new coal-fired power plants without first confirming its technical viability at a large scale and also its financial viability compared with other alternatives.

Conclusions

There are still contradictory signs at international level in regard to the extent of the decarbonisation of the economy associated with the Paris Agreement. If a path compatible with the goals set in Paris is to be consolidated, there is an urgent need for a clear policy of support for alternative energy sources. The experience of China between 2000 and 2015 shows that if the great demographic and economic powers base their energy development on the large-scale use of coal, then the mitigation efforts of other countries will be largely cancelled out. Although India plans to have nearly 60% of its electricity capacity from non-fossil fuels by the next decade, the consumption of coal is projected to grow by 50%. It is therefore important to react quickly and redirect existing plans for new coal-fired power stations towards technologies compatible with a low carbon future. Accordingly, it is essential that there should be greater transparency in regard to existing funding flows in support of coal, and also that economic aid should be consolidated for countries which have a pressing need to increase their energy consumption.

The full article, including detailed data on carbon budgets, is available for download via the TRANSrisk website: ‘New Coal-Fired Plants Jeopardise Paris Agreement‘.


logoThis article is an output of the EU-funded TRANSrisk project.

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