Just days after government data confirmed that Australia is on track to meet its 2020 Renewable Energy Target, a new study finds our climate control headway could be undone by other countries’ continued coal reliance.
Ottmar Edenhofer of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, and three colleagues, say that if all the world’s planned coal plants are built we are closing the door on the Paris Agreement’s target of restricting temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius this century.
The research was published in Environmental Research Letters, with co-authors from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Technical University of Berlin.
The study is based on a concept of “lock-in” or “committed” emissions: Once a coal plant is completed and put into service, the thinking goes, it’s likely to operate for long time to justify the cost of the investment, reports The Washington Post.
The research finds that five countries — India, China, Turkey, Vietnam and Indonesia — are home to “nearly three quarters (73 percent) of the global coal-fired capacity that is currently under construction or planned.”
Vietnam, if plans are carried forward, could see 948 percent growth in coal emissions, the research asserts, by 2030.
The study is based on a database by CoalSwarm, a project of the Earth Island Institute, which carefully tracks coal plants in varying stages of completion across the globe, in collaboration with Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
Christine Shearer, a researcher with CoalSwarm, said it’s important to bear in mind that not all coal plants are actually completed.
“Since we started doing this work, since 2010, only about a third of proposed coal plants ever begin construction or are commissioned,” she said.
China, the world’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels, is a classic example.
Just last October it announced it was stopping or postponing work on 151 coal plants that were either under, or earmarked for, construction.
A month earlier India reported its national coal fleet on average ran at little more than 60% of its capacity – among other things, well below what is generally considered necessary for an individual generator to be financially viable.
Study author Mr Edenhofer, however, countered that the current building plans are important information.
“This does not mean we are doomed, but these announcements are announcements which should be taken into account very seriously,” he said.
“These are not just paper plants, these are real plants.”
Cameron Hepburn, a professor in environmental economics at Oxford University, also weighed in on the recent study with a gloomy outlook.
“If we don’t stop building coal plants now, we will have four unpalatable options,” he tells The Washington Post by email.
“We either (1) shut down coal plants early, (2) retrofit expensive carbon capture technologies, (3) suck even more CO2 out of the atmosphere, potentially at high cost, or (4) burn through the 2 degree C target.”