The Road To Climate Disaster Is Paved With Coal: 1,200 New Coal Plants Planned Around The World

Some weeks, a few news stories come together to illustrate just how dire the situation is for the world’s climate. This week is one of them.

This morning, new data from the World Meteorological Organization showed that carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide levels hit record highs in 2011. As of last year, concentrations of CO2 — one of the most abundant heat-trapping gases — hit 390.9 parts per million. (350 ppm is what many scientists say is the upper limit on “safe” levels of CO2).

According to WMO, we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in “radiative forcing” — i.e. the amount of heat trapped on earth — since 1990.

These record levels of greenhouse gas emissions aren’t a huge surprise considering that other organizations have reported similar findings. The real news is what the world intends to do about it. And according to a new report on the global pipeline for coal-fired power plants — a technology that accounted for 45 percent of CO2 in 2011 — there’s not much hope for slowing the record pace of global warming pollution.

According to a new analysis released today by the World Resources Institute, there are nearly 1,200 new coal plants planned for construction around the world. Most of those plants will be built in China and India, but there are dozens planned for America, Australia, Europe, and Russia.

The report outlines virtually every coal plant announced around the world. That does not necessarily mean that every one will get built. In the U.S., for example, it is highly unlikely that many — if any — new coal plants will move forward as cheap natural gas, growing renewables, and legal pressure from environmental groups trips up the pipeline. (Also, as Justin Guay of the Sierra Club points out in a piece today, local resistance in communities around the world is also hindering many of these projects).

But the tally is still staggering. If all these plants were built, they would amount to generation capacity four times greater than the entire U.S. coal fleet. And to see just how rapidly coal consumption is increasing in Asia, take a look at this animated graphic from the Energy Information Administration.

The interactive map below shows where these plants could be constructed:


Ironically, the World Bank — a lending institution responsible for helping finance some of the world’s largest coal plants — released a report this week outlining the “devastating” consequences of our current emissions path. Summarizing leading climate change research, the institution warned that the planet is on track to warm by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, thus triggering “extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

That’s more conservative than the International Energy Agency, which warned recently that we are on a path toward 5.7 degree Celsius warming by the end of the century. The IEA also issued a resource assessment last week concluding that we must leave roughly two-thirds of carbon reserves in the ground in order keep global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius — a widely-recognized threshold for preventing catastrophic climate change.

It’s clear that we’re still nowhere near considering that as an option.

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26 Responses to The Road To Climate Disaster Is Paved With Coal: 1,200 New Coal Plants Planned Around The World

  1. prokaryotes says:

    For too long, world leaders have tried appealing to our better angels to bring about a solution to climate change. It’s time they aimed a little lower, at our hip pockets.

    Far from being the greatest moral challenge of our times, as Kevin Rudd framed it, climate change is shaping up as one of the greatest economic challenges of our times.

    Paying more under a carbon tax? You’ll pay even more if the business-as-usual climate change scenario is allowed to play out.

    Soaring food prices, water prices and home insurance premiums – these things are already happening to some degree. Add to that the destruction of jobs in agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism.

    These are just some of the warnings contained in a report released this week by the world’s most venerable and conservative economic body, the World Bank.

  2. Will Fox says:

    Has anyone here read “The Great Disruption” by Paul Gilding? The scenario he describes is how I think this will play out – humanity waits until the last minute, when a massive WW2-scale deployment of clean energy and carbon sequestration is undertaken. Our current efforts with regards to cutting CO2 emissions are a joke – probably less than 1% of what’s truly needed, judging by the sheer scale of the problem. It will take a genuine catastrophe (and many millions of deaths) to finally wake us up. Also I doubt capitalism will survive in the new world that emerges.

  3. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    So what’s the plan for when weather disasters start taking out so much imfastructure that fossil fuels will no longer be deliverable. When the ports, transportation and electrical systems are destroyed, OH YA that is already a reality in the northeast isnt it. How about when a cat 3, only the size of Sandy hits oil platforms along the gulf coast and comes ashore in Texas, They will most likely be happy for the rain. How about the ability to move cargo up major rivers from those ports still operating when we have a major drought, OH YA that is already happening on the Mississippi, it is now a choice between the Missouri watershed and the barge traffic on the Big Miss. How big will the landslides be when wildfires rage across the west and then all the water they get comes as heavy rain not snow because its to warm in fall/winter, OH YA landslides are happening right now in the Cascades because the ground is soaked not frozen and the snowlevel is bouncing from 3500ft to 7000ft between one day and the next. Just the beginning and it’s pretty bad already, by 2015 at this rate maybe it will be bad ENOUGH to move on to a solution.

  4. oh dear i had ussumed methane concrentrations to be stable recently and only if they begin to rise would the issue of permafrost/clathrate emissions be upon us,it seems that now may well be the case.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Shit oh dear. Thanks for this, Stephen, we need to be reminded of the scale of what we are up against.

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    I’ve read it, and while I think he comes closer to telling the full truth than almost any other author I’ve read, I think he still overlooks several key points, the most obvious of which is that once we get to the point where climate impacts are so painful and so continuous that it moves us to meaningful action that we’ll have locked in what Joe and others call hell and high water.

    I’ve said about a million times online that the most inconvenient truth of all is the very long atmospheric lifetime of CO2. If we wait until the we’re actually feeling pain from CC (meaning much more pain than we’ve experienced to date), then we’ll have to look for not just adaptation and mitigation, but very expensive things like ways to suck CO2 out of the air and permanently sequester it. And all of this will be happening in parallel with huge impacts on our ability to feed a world of 7.5 or 8 or 8.5 (or …) people.

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Brakes would be applied to these horrific projects if Obama got off his butt and did what needs to be done, including top level talks with global leaders. Otherwise, say hello to hell and high water in our children’s lifetimes.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The world is not crazy. Humanity is not crazy. However the plutocratic ruling caste and their Rightwing political and MSM propaganda stooges are morally insane. These types have always, in my opinion, been quite evil, throughout history, exploiting and brutalising other human beings and destroying the richness of the planet, but now they have reached the end-stage of their greed-driven destructiveness.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Capitalism must be destroyed, because it caused these multitudinous catastrophes and it has fought tooth and nail to prevent them being addressed. If it survives then it will create other such crises, until we run out of luck. Of course the odds on humanity getting through the current crisis of ecological crises is vanishingly small, and denial of that bitter truth is quite widespread.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama is not programmed to get off his butt unless his owner/controllers instruct him to do so. Address your complaints to Axelrod and his controllers, behind that diaphanous curtain.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Replacing capitalism requires conscious conceptual knowledge of the organizational design principles, the first of which produces top down hierarchical systems which result in competition, self interest and greed. The second produces self managing systems in which people cooperate towards common purposes. The first has become so ubiquitous that many no longer believe the second is possible, all evidence to the contrary. See “Afterwards’ on ME

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Think of this as a gold rush to get your share before the seam runs out or the fanatical charge to kill as many as possible before the axe falls on your own neck. These people know what is coming, soon, ME

  13. RobS says:

    This report is nothing but fossil fuel lobby rose coloured glasses view of the world they would like to see. Worldwide these projects are being cancelled as fast as they can be proposed. For example the only coal plant proposed for Australia was cancelled in July because the only funding they had managed to secure was from the government, a combination of financial due diligence and community pressure meant that not a single bank or other source of funding would come on board.
    In India several coal plants have been cancelled after grass roots resistance and protests left two villagers dead at the hands of police. Televised footage of these brutal crackdowns on fisherman and villagers opposing the plant has galvanised the Indian people against these destructive plants.
    The reality is that coal is so filthy that if you try to produce power from it in a clean way the costs associated make it completely economically uncompetitive with natural gas and renewables. However if you don’t employ clean coal technology then there is now an almost worldwide major community resistance to coal that either outright prevents plants being built or bogs them down in so much resistance that projects never come to fruition as timelines and costs blow out.
    My prediction is that a few new coal plants will manage to negotiate their way through the financial and community roadblocks before them however they will be outnumbered by coal capacity retirements ~10 to 1. The overwhelming number of proposed plants will be cancelled. I actually think it is important that a few high tech low emission coal plant projects do make it to completion just to prove how uneconomic these plants are, a few coal plants going bankrupt is necessary to silence the morons who wish to continue to claim that clean coal is a cheap source of power moving forward.

  14. Everyone wants their fossil fuel reserves to be included in the 1/3 that can be burned.

    Lacking global leadership in divvying up the remaining 1/3 allotment everyone is just going for it.

    As it stands the global rules encourage everyone to dig up and burn their fossil fuel reserves as fast as possible.

    Obama is one of the few people in the world who can push for a set of rules to stem the sprint off the carbon cliff.

  15. Stopping new coal plants and related high carbon infrastructure from being built is the most important front in the fight to save the climate. Remember that it’s easier to stop something from being built than it is to shut it down after it’s operating and generating profits. Bill McKibben and company (and the rest of us, of course) have their work cut out for them.

  16. prokaryotes says:

    Relax with some vitalizing music…

    I know exactly what you mean :)

  17. Gillian King says:

    Before we get out the smelling salts, I’d like to question whether nine new coals generators are REALLY planned for Australia, as the report says.

    How likely is it, given that current coal generators are being shut and mothballed at a great rate. Demand for electricity from coal generators fell 10% last year.

    Sure, there probably are nine projects hanging around on various books. But what are the chances of even two or three being built? Pretty low.

    And if you did a similar analysis across all countries, what would the number of REALLY LIKELY coal generators be?

    Maybe you’d find there’s no need for smelling salts just yet.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes, they are desperately trying to gee up their supporters. People are not stupid and the tide has turned. It is far too late but better later than never, ME

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You are right Gillian and the same goes for fracking. But hang onto those smelling salts for what is to come, ME

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The key word is ‘conscious’. Our crisis has its roots in human psychology, the pathopsychology of the Right in particular. They possess all those psychic traits, greed, egomania, lack of human empathy etc, that, when projected on societies, produce the system we call capitalism, which advantages that very type. Vast numbers of the rest of humanity live with false consciousness, where they have been brainwashed to believe that greed is good, indeed natural, and that one day they will be rich, too. When that lie is exposed, they have been brainwashed to blame everyone else, eg people of different races, or religions, or social class, or unionists, or (the new evil)the detested ‘Greenies’, everyone but the real architects of their misery, the rich controllers of society. We need a revolution in consciousness, a mass enlightenment of those living in a dream-world of lies, false pretenses and wretched, unquenchable, desires for more and more useless crap- a sort of chronic, life-long, moral and spiritual dementia. Until that occurs, and it will take a miracle, every environmental advance is in constant danger of being reversed by a Cameron, an Abbott or a Harper at the head of lynch-mobs of the mindlessly greedy.

  21. RobS says:

    This report is ridiculous, all the Australian projects have previously been declared bust, some over 2 years ago. If plants In Australia with strict permitting requirements and therefore plentiful easily accessible info are so innaccurately described how reliable is the info from developing nations. I know of at least two Indian plants they have included that have been cancelled. Personally I think the whole report is junk.

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You have just provided further evidence for my last sentence before the reference, ME

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Kevin Rudd said that, then dogged it as soon as the going got tough. Moreover he proposed a contemptibly risible 5% target for emissions reduction by 2020 (the instant that I knew, for certain, that he was the complete phony)and Australia still played a spoiler role at climate conferences.

  24. rollin says:

    If we all cut our use of fossil fuels (including electric) by 50% and cut our purchases of products by 50%, do you think that any of these plants would be built? Do you think that maybe a lot more coal plants would be shuttered?

  25. Mike, NO! Not “in our children’s lifetime.” I our lifetime. It’s happening NOW! Midwest drought = HELL. Hurricane Sandy = HIGH WATER!