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Coal is poised to generate enough greenhouse gases to soar past the 2°C warming threshold. (Photo: Guy Gorek/flickr/cc)

Coal-as-Usual Could Push World 400 Percent Past Warming Threshold

Even without new plants, existing coal emissions on track for 150 percent warming past 2°C maximum, new analysis finds

Nadia Prupis, staff writer

Thousands of new coal-fired power plants being planned worldwide that, if built, would push the planet past its maximum 2°C warming threshold by 400 percent within 15 years, according to a new analysis released Tuesday.

Under a 2°C scenario, the potential 2,400 new plants, along with existing factories, are poised to generate enough greenhouse gases to soar past the warming threshold, breach global climate pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs), and "explode" climate mitigation costs for countries around the world, the research group Climate Action Tracker (CAT) announced at the COP21 climate summit in Paris.

"More than 100 countries are calling for the Paris agreement to reference warming limits of 1.5°C.  Yet even electricity production from existing coal plants far exceed the range of such scenarios," said Bill Hare, CEO of the Climate Analytics think tank. In order to stay within the 2°C range, a "rapid decarbonization" of the energy sector is imperative, Hare said.

In fact, even if no new plants are built, emissions from existing coal plants would still be more than 150 percent higher than what is compatible with a 2°C pathway, CAT found in its analysis, The Coal Gap: planned coal-fired power plants inconsistent with 2 ̊C  and threaten achievement of INDCs (pdf).

World leaders are gathering in Paris over the next two weeks to finalize a global climate deal to lower emissions and invest in renewable energy, lest runaway global warming cause irreparable damage to the planet, particularly for developing nations and frontline communities.

Yet even with that critical goal in mind, eight countries and the European Union (EU) are planning to build more than 5 gigawatts (GW) of coal power, CAT said.
"There is a solution to this issue of too many coal plants on the books: cancel them."
—Pieter Van Breevoort, Ecofys
That includes China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines, and Turkey. The U.S. was not included in the analysis because it only plans to expand coal capacity by 3.5GW.

In many emerging economies, coal power still represents the easiest short-term measure to meet increasing electricity demands. But it doesn't have to be that way. As countless researchers and climate advocates have long pointed out, a moratorium on coal and a new focus on clean power would transform the world's energy sector and reduce all associated costs—from investment and construction to the price of mitigating climate change.

"There is a solution to this issue of too many coal plants on the books: cancel them," said Pieter Van Breevoort of the climate policy consulting group Ecofys, which helped craft the CAT analysis. "Renewable energy and stricter pollution standards are making coal plants obsolete around the world, and the earlier a coal plant is taken out of the planning process, the less it will cost."

CAT researchers remained optimistic about the potential for renewable energy to overtake the fossil fuel industry.

"It is unlikely that all of these planned coal plants are going to be built, especially when low carbon alternatives are reaching price parity," said Markus Hagemann of NewClimate Institute. "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."

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