Skip to content

Reality Check: Nearly 2,200 New Coal Power Plants In Planning Worldwide

|
Brad Plumer, Vox

There are currently 2,177 coal plants either being proposed, being developed, or being built worldwide.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the global coal renaissance — arguably the most important climate-change story in the world right now. Since 2000, developing countries like China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia have been building coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace:

(CoalSwarm/Sierra Club)

On the upside, this boom has helped these countries lift themselves out of poverty. But the growth in coal has also meant a surge in global carbon-dioxide emissions — and if coal continues to be the world’s energy source of choice, we’ll have little hope avoiding drastic global warming.

So that brings us to the next question: How long will this global coal boom continue?

For that, I’d recommend this March 2015 report from two environmental groups, CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club. The authors have documented, in painstaking detail, all the new coal plants that have either been proposed, permitted, or are currently being built around the world.

The bottom line? There’s a large amount of coal capacity being planned worldwide, some 2,177 plants in all. Not all of these coal plants will actually get finished — many are getting sunk by local opposition or economic headwinds. But if even one-third of these planned plants get built, we run a high risk of busting through the 2°C global warming threshold. And right now, we’re on track to do just that.

There are more than enough coal plants in the pipeline to bust through the 2°C threshold

Let’s start with the first point — there are at least 2,177 coal units currently on the drawing board around the world. Of those, 557 are actually under construction. The rest are in various planning stages:

(<a href="http://action.sierraclub.org/site/DocServer/Coal_Tracker_report_final_3-9-15.pdf?docID=17381">CoalSwarm/Sierra Club</a>)

(CoalSwarm/Sierra Club)

This is a huge deal, environmentally: The authors calculate that if even just one-third of these 2,177 coal plants being planned get built and last their full lifetimes, the world will use up nearly all of the carbon budget needed to stay below 2°C of global warming — the widely agreed-upon limit in international climate talks.

(Note: This is assuming the coal plants last their full lifespans. The exceptions would be if plants got decommissioned or retired early — and lose billions of dollars in revenue — or if we figured out how retrofit existing coal plants to capture their carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground, a technology that’s still in its infancy.)

Below is a breakdown of the proposed plants by generating capacity. To put this in perspective, the world added about 626 gigawatts of coal capacity, on net, between 2005 and 2013. Going forward, there’s another 276 gigawatts under construction, andanother 1,000 gigawatts in various stages of planning:

 

(CoalSwarm/Sierra Club)

Note that China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia account for the vast majority of current construction. But it’s not just those countries. There are coal plants going up just about everywhere save for the United States (where coal is actually declining due to cheap natural gas and EPA air-pollution rules) and Western Europe.

Full story