Environment

Nearly half of the coal industry is still on an expansion course in ‘reckless’ mining rush

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is the chief driver of the climate crisis.
Vcg | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Nearly half of the coal industry intends to develop new projects to exploit the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, according to German campaign group Urgewald, with many companies refusing to retire assets even as extreme weather events become worse and more frequent across the globe.

An annual update from Urgewald and 40 partner NGOs published Thursday found that 490 of the 1,064 companies on its Global Coal Exit List were pursuing new coal power plants, coal mines or new coal transport infrastructure.

It means 46% of the companies surveyed are committed to expanding despite last year’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow ending with a global agreement to “accelerate efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal.”

The research, which represents the world’s most comprehensive public database on the coal industry, said less than 3% of those surveyed had announced timely coal exit dates.

“Pursuing new coal projects in the midst of a climate emergency is reckless, irresponsible behavior,” said Heffa Schuecking, director of Urgewald. “Investors, banks, and insurers should ban these coal developers from their portfolios immediately.”

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel in terms of emissions and therefore the most critical target for replacement in the transition to renewable energy sources.

To be sure, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is the chief driver of the climate crisis.

In just the last few months, historic floods submerged one-third of Pakistan, Europe experienced its hottest summer in 500 years and China recorded the most severe heatwave in climatic history.

At the same time, some European governments have reluctantly turned to coal to help prevent a winter supply shortage amid a dramatic fall in Russian gas flows. Moscow has throttled gas supplies amid a bitter energy stand-off provoked by the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

Clear and near coal exit dates

Speaking ahead of the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh next month, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned, “we are in a life-or-death struggle for our own safety today and our survival tomorrow.”

“This is no time for pointing fingers — or twiddling thumbs. It is time for a quantum level compromise between developed and emerging economies,” he added.

The NGOs report said there are currently more than 6,500 coal plant units globally with a combined capacity of 2,067 gigawatts. It says that whether humanity is able to keep global heating from surpassing the critical temperature threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius depends “first and foremost on how quickly we phase out this enormous coal plant fleet.”

The 1.5 degrees Celsius goal is the aspirational global temperature limit set in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. It is recognized as a crucial global target because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely.

The vast majority of companies on the GCEL still have no intention of retiring the coal assets, which are propelling us towards a breakdown of our climate systems.
Heffa Schuecking
Director of Urgewald

Under the IEA’s roadmap to net zero by 2050, published in May last year, the world’s richest countries must retire their coal power plants by the end of the decade — at the latest — and by 2040 for the rest of the world.

In stark contrast to high-income countries like Italy, France and the U.K., however, the U.S. has not yet set a national phase-out date for its coal power plants.

“While the warnings issued by IPCC and UNEP become more and more dire from one UN Climate Summit to the next, our data regarding companies’ transition plans remains depressingly consistent,” Schuecking said.

“The vast majority of companies on the GCEL still have no intention of retiring the coal assets, which are propelling us towards a breakdown of our climate systems. A real transition requires clear and near coal exit dates.”

Today, there are more than 6,500 coal plant units globally with a combined capacity of 2,067 gigawatts.
Saeed Khan | Afp | Getty Images

Urgewald’s Schuecking told CNBC that since the 2015 Paris accord was signed, the global coal plant fleet had seen a net increase of roughly 157 gigawatts. That’s the equivalent of Germany, Russia, Japan and Poland’s coal fleet added up together.

The research found that 467 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity were still in the pipeline worldwide. And, if realized, these projects would increase the world’s current coal power capacity by 23%.

“Stopping investing in or financing coal developers, that should be a no-brainer. I just don’t see how anyone can be serious about the Paris goals or be an institution that takes climate seriously if you’re still involved with coal developers,” Schuecking said.

China’s coal habit

China was found to be responsible for 61% of all planned coal power capacity additions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the top four coal plant developers were found to be Chinese companies: China Huaneng Group, China Energy Investment Corporation, China Datang Corporation and China Huadian Corporation.

The report found that with 570 million metric tons, China Energy Investment Corporation was the world’s top thermal coal producer last year. This was closely followed by Coal India, which produced 557 million tons of thermal coal in 2021.

Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development, a regional alliance of community organizations and NGOs, said the world welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement last year that Beijing would stop building new coal power plants abroad.

“But China needs to adopt similar measures for its domestic energy system if it wants to become an actor for a 1.5°C world,” Nacpil said.

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