Coal is a climate killer, whatever its efficiency

The argument that high-efficiency coal-fired power plants are a viable solution for reducing CO2 emissions, the main cause of climate change, is still defended with vigour by the coal industry – and by governments that have a stake in the coal industry, in particular Japan, Germany, South Korea, Australia and Poland. Japan even goes as far as to counting public finance for coal plants as ‘climate finance’.

Research by consultancy Ecofys, commissioned by WWF, completely discredits these claims.

It shows that in order to achieve the emissions reductions needed to keep temperature rise under 2 degrees – an international commitment confirmed in Paris in December – power production from coal needs to reduce drastically as from today, and be completely phased out by the middle of this century. This is based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

An even more rapid decline will be needed in order to achieve the commitment taken at the UN climate summit in Paris in December 2015 to ‘pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.
Coal development still continues, however.

There are currently plans to build no fewer than 2,300 new coal plants globally, equivalent to a capacity of 1,400GW. If all these plants were to be built, CO2 emissions from existing and new plants in 2030 would amount to 11 gigatonnes: this is six times higher than what a 1.5°C carbon budget would allow. According to the report equipping all new plants with even the most efficient technologies would only lead to marginal emission reductions of approximately 1 gigatonne, keeping the 1.5°C target far out of reach.

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While governments prepare to come together and officially sign the global climate Paris Agreement, it is time for them to start taking their climate change commitments seriously. They should recognise what research demonstrates: that the global carbon budget and the time remaining to reduce greenhouse gas emissions simply do not allow for the replacement of retired coal plants with new more efficient coal plants, let alone capacity extensions.

Rich countries should lead the effort to phase out coal. The G7 summit to be held on 26–28 May in Japan – whose government is one of the biggest coal supports worldwide – offers an opportunity to do so. The G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States – should commit to putting their money where their mouth is, and immediately end all public financial support for any type of coal plant technology, whatever its efficiency. They should also publicly commit to phase out coal plants in their country by 2035 at the latest, as a precursor to the global phase-out needed by 2050.

The Ecofys research rebuts once and for all that high-efficient coal can be a solution to climate change. As a result, it makes clear that in a post-Paris world, there is simply no role for coal anymore. More renewable energy, more energy efficiency and a giving a more central role to power consumers are the solutions we need.

Jan Vandermosten is the Sustainable Finance Policy Officer for WWF’s European Policy Office. He is based in Brussels.