The global capacity of coal power plants rose nearly one per cent last year, driven by Chinese expansion in fossil fuel production as it recovers from the pandemic, according to environmental group Global Energy Monitor (GEM).
Its latest report found that global coal plant capacity grew 18.2 gigawatts (GW) to about 2,100 GW – an increase of 0.87 per cent.
While most developed economies reduced their reliance on coal, commissioned capacity in China (25.2GW) was so vast it nearly offset coal plant retirements in the rest of the world (25.6 GW).
China is the world’s top climate polluter and coal is the most environmentally damaging fossil fuel, emitting the most carbon dioxide when burned.
Despite last year’s capacity rise, the capacity of global coal plants being built in 2021 fell from 525 GW in 2020 to 457 GW, a decrease of 13 per cent.
This reflects a general decline in appetite to build coal power plants across developed economies, amid long-term environmental efforts with countries shifting to gas and renewables.
Last year, 27 European Union (EU) member states retired a record 12.9 GW in 2021, with the most retirements in Germany (5.8 GW), Spain (1.7 GW), and Portugal (1.9 GW) which became coal free in November 2021, nine years before its targeted 2030 phase-out date.
In 2021, the amount of retired US coal capacity declined for the second consecutive year from 16.1 GW in 2019, to 11.6 GW in 2020, to an estimated 6.4 GW to 9 GW in 2021.
However, China remains the key driver of coal usage worldwide, despite pledges to bring greenhouse gas emissions to a peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
While it is currently imposing heavy restrictions in Shanghai following an outbreak of Covid-19 cases, its economy has boosted energy output in the past 12cmonths as conditions broadly stabilise.
Following market volatility disruptive power cuts and geopolitical Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country is prioritising energy security alongside other developed economies.
Germany has also been considering using more coal to replace Russian natural gas, and while the UK’s energy security strategy chiefly focuses on ramping up renewables, it also supports further North Sea oil and gas and has reopened the door to fracking and coal mining.
The US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, pledged at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow last October to phase down coal usage.
It also teamed up with 40 other countries to end international finance for most fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022.
However, the Biden administration may soon consider calls for exemptions to its pledge as energy markets tighten following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The latest developments follow the publication of a critical report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that coal use needs to fall by 75 per cent by 2030 (from 2019 levels) for a 1.5 degree pathway.
It argued that current pledges were not enough, and that more measures needed to be brought in to reduce energy demand.