Energy & Environment

Chances of coal being phased out? Just 1 in 20 by 2050

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Steam is emitted from smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant on Nov. 17, 2021, in Craig, Colo.

Coal power plants are a major contributor to climate disruption — but current policies give just a 1 in 20 chance of phasing them out by 2050.

According to a study published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, growing calls for an end to the use of coal — and even widespread global agreements to stop burning the fuel for electricity — won’t be enough to keep the world from burning coal through midcentury.  

Instead, doing so will require more hands-on regulation and policies, the scientists found. They noted that such policies might have to include global bans on mining the fuel. 

Their study showed why exiting coal — an agreed-upon international community goal since the 2021 U.N. climate change conference — is such a heavy lift. 

“It’s a make-or-break moment,” said Stephen Bi from the Institute for Climate Impact Research at Potsdam University, lead author of the study to be published in Nature Climate Change, in a statement accompanying the release.  

Missing the midcentury deadline to cut out coal would also leave only a small chance of reaching net-zero emission by 2050 and of “limiting disastrous climate risks,” Bi added. 

Coal is the battlefront in the global campaign to push the energy system away from fossil fuels. The participants of the U.N. climate change conferences in both 2021 and 2022 agreed to ”phase down” the “unabated” use of the fossil fuel. 

This language, however, left open two substantial loopholes. First, it allows the possibility that coal power plants are somehow “abated” — perhaps using currently-unproven technologies to capture and store the carbon dioxide emitted when coal is burned. 

Second, in a subtle but highly significant distinction, the signatories avoided language that would have committed countries to “phase out” coal — committing instead only to reduce its use along an unspecified timeline. 

The scientists found that these sorts of agreements — which trust in the rising efficiency of cleaner power sources to drive coal into irrelevancy — are unlikely to work. 

One particularly alarming result was that widespread global agreements to bring coal-fired electric plants offline would have “almost zero impact on total future coal use,” the researchers wrote in their statement. 

If the electric system moves off coal, it will make the fuel even more attractive for its other primary use: as a heat source for metal refining and other heat-intensive heavy industry. 

The Potsdam researchers focused particularly on policy loopholes left open by the Powering Past Coal Alliance — an international coalition of countries, states and regions that have pledged to phase out coal use by 2030. 

The researchers found that the alliance has faced problems ensuring that member countries are following through on their commitments — while suffering from a huge policy oversight of its own. 

While the alliance is expected to grow in coming years, its signatories only commit to pull coal out of their electricity markets — leaving out the large, important and highly polluting use of coal to make steel, cement or chemicals. 

This oversight contributes to what scientists call a “leakage effect,” which happens when some countries or industries reduce their coal use, but increases in coal use elsewhere then offset that reduction. 

In this case, the researchers wrote that global efforts to get coal out of the power sector could lead coal use to “rebound” globally.  

“The greatest risk to the coal exit movement may come from free-riding sectors in coalition members. Unregulated industries can take advantage of falling coal prices at home and use more coal than they otherwise would have,” said co-author Nico Bauer of the Potsdam Institute. 

The researchers said that falling demand for coal-fired electricity could lead to falling coal prices — which could lead industries to burn more coal. 

The success of the Alliance depends in large measure on a country that has not yet joined it: China. Beijing’s plans for a new fleet of coal-burning facilities jeopardizes its so-called “dual-carbon goals” — to peak domestic emissions before 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060, Bi noted. 

Their simulations show China “only falls on the right side of that line if it stops building coal plants by 2025.” 

Researchers added that global renewables targets depend on China’s success in pivoting entirely away from coal. 

Beijing’s “current coal plans jeopardize China’s recent promise to peak domestic emissions before 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060,” Bi said. 

If China stops building coal plants by 2025, the researchers found that the world has a fighting chance of sunsetting the use of the fuel by mid-century. 

“If not, then it becomes less clear how we’ll achieve sufficient diffusion of renewables worldwide. China’s actions today can position it to either lead or impede the global energy transition,” Bi added. 

Tags China Climate change Coal coal plants

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