Will the world build 1,200 coal plants?
Climate scientists have sometimes warned that it could prove impossible to avoid high levels of global warming unless the world stops building coal-fired plants. But that's not a simple proposition. Across the globe, there are at least 1,199 coal plants now on the drawing board, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute.
Many of these proposed plants are in China and India, which account for 76 percent of proposed capacity. Turkey and Russia also have big plans. And a growing number of coal plants are being proposed for developing countries such as Cambodia, Guatemala and Uzbekistan, nations that are looking to cut-rate sources of energy to fuel economic growth.
It's still unclear how many of these proposed plants will get built. In the United States, for instance, plans for 36 coal plants are now looking unlikely, thanks to new pollution rules and the availability of cheap natural gas. But in Europe and Japan, once-moribund coal plant proposals are being revived although nuclear reactors were shut down as a result of the Fukushima disaster.
“We wanted to identify all proposed plants rather than try to assess the likelihood that they'll get built,” says Ailun Yang, a co-author of the report. That's because proposed coal plants that appear dead can often come back to life again later. Whether or not these plants get built will largely depend on the policy choices that governments make, as well as market forces such as the availability of natural gas.
And those policy choices could have major implications for global warming. Coal burning accounts for about 44 percent of the world's energy-related carbon emissions. If even just a quarter of these 1,199 proposed plants were built, that would be the same thing as doubling the coal capacity of the United States. A massive coal expansion would make it increasingly difficult to slow the pace of climate change.
So a lot depends on how governments will think about coal in the years ahead. And that will vary from country to country.
Take China, which has at least 363 large plants in the pipeline. The country has likely passed its peak in terms of coal expansion, says Yang; it's no longer building two plants a week the way it was back in the early 2000s. And some analysts have suggested that China's gargantuan coal appetite could wane in the years ahead, as economic growth slows and pollution concerns become more pressing. So it's quite possible that a big portion of those 363 proposed plants won't ever get built. A lot rests on whether the Chinese government decides to tighten its voluntary cap on coal consumption or pursue new climate policies.
In India, meanwhile, the coal question is more agonizing. There are still more than 300 million Indians without electricity, and poverty remains widespread. The country isn't quite as far along the development path as China. Only in the past few years have proposals for coal plants really exploded, Yang says, and there's a lot more room for growth. Coal offers a potentially low-cost source of electricity, but also brings some major downsides — from water use and air pollution to speeding along climate change. That makes it harder to predict how many of India's 455 proposed coal plants will eventually get built.
“Both of these countries have made noises that they'd like to take a different development path,” says Yang — one that doesn't rely so heavily on fossil fuels. “But they'd have to put in place policies that are strong enough to discourage coal use.” And whether or not that actually happens is one of the biggest uncertainties in trying to make climate predictions.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Ford City budget may not be final
- 2,200 union employees of ATI lose coverage
- Angel trees feature pets from shelter
- Babies welcomed to the world in holiday style
- Mentor takes young Brackenridge hunter under his wing
- November spared Valley effects of wintry weather
- Eastern Pa. man jailed in Armstrong County
- Starkey: Tomlin lived in his fears
- Shoppers can buy gifts for seniors through Home Instead program
- Increasing player salaries pinch financial flexibility of Pirates
- Penguins’ reshuffled top line of Crosby, Dupuis, Kunitz looks familiar