Report: Developers Are Cancelling More Coal Plants Than They Build

CREDIT: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

A Filipino activist participates in an anti-coal rally outside the Asian Development Bank headquarters, east of Manila, Philippines in 2013. The group condemned the ADB for it's alleged support of coal plants.

Worldwide, two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed since 2010 have stalled or been cancelled, says a new report from the Sierra Club and Coalswarm. However, those cancellations haven’t been enough to significantly reduce carbon emissions from coal.

Despite the increase in projects being cancelled, coal capacity has still grown nearly 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to the report. “Boom and Bust: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline” looks at every proposed coal plant since 2010, and analyzes data between geographic regions. The data will continue to be updated and available at the Global Coal Plant Tracker website.

Coal is the largest contributor to human-caused climate change. According to the report, coal produced more emissions than any other fossil fuel source from 2004 to 2013. Worldwide, coal is responsible for 44 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions.

But even though capacity has grown, coal is still going bust, said Ted Nace, founder of CoalSwarm, an open-source reference on coal and an Earth Island Institute project. Nace says this is because the failure rate of proposed projects is so much higher than it has been in the past.

Although the death of a power plant project is usually a “death by a thousand cuts,” Nace says, there are two primary groups driving the decline in coal. Globally, divestment has made coal projects less attractive, and locally, community activism has prohibited some projects going forward.

“The international community has very much been a factor in the slowdown, through finance,” he told ThinkProgress. “The divestment movement has been a large part of what’s created a negative business climate for coal investment.”

Organizations such as, an environmental advocacy group, have pushed divestment as a means to “help break the hold that the fossil fuel industry has on our economy and our governments.”

Last May, Stanford University became as the first major American university to divest from coal, and dozens of other schools, funds, and religious groups have also opted to divest. Divestment has become so popular that Oxford University is currently facing student protests after voting this week not to divest.

In addition, funding mechanisms have also turned away from coal. In 2013, the World Bank announced it would no longer fund coal projects. The United States has made a similar pledge.

The push against coal is also coming from groups on the ground where plants have been proposed.

“People themselves are being very effective,” Nace said.

In India, for example, where since 2012 coal plant projects have been cancelled or shelved six times as often as being completed, civic opposition has been critical, and activists’ successes have not gone unnoticed.

In January, an activist planning to brief British Parliament members on the impacts of a planned, British-funded coal plant was barred from boarding her flight because she was allegedly “involved in anti-national activities,” the BBC reported. Last week, the Indian High Court ruled the government could not stop Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace worker, from traveling.

Still, these efforts have not been enough to stop the growth of coal. Plants are still being built, which means carbon emissions likely won’t be reduced enough to prevent average global temperatures from rising two degrees, the limit recognized by the United Nations to avoid dangerous climate change.

“Even if the trend of two coal plant proposals halted for every one plant built continues,” the report warns, “the remaining one-third will use up nearly all of the available carbon budget for avoiding the internationally recognized 2°C warming threshold.”