GLOBAL GOALS ON CLIMATE CHANGE MAY BE ATTAINABLE, DUE TO RAPID COLLAPSE OF COAL

Mar 26, 2017 by

CASTLE DALE, UT - JUNE 3: A loader moves coal piles that sit outside the Hunter Power plant operated by PacifiCorp that are waiting to be burned to produce electricity on June 3, 2016 outside Castle Dale, Utah. The EPA announced new restrictions on the Huntington and Hunter coal fired power plants in Utah to help reduce pollution and haze at several National Parks in the area. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Good news is a rare thing in climate change stories. Coming off the hottest year ever, following the hottest year ever, with sea ice levels falling to record lows and the North Pole incredibly balmy even in the darkness of winter, it’s clear that we’ve passed a whole teeter-totter factory worth of tipping points. But there is one bit of news that indicates things may actually beat the current, most dire, predictions.

The amount of new coal power being built around the world fell by nearly two-thirds last year, prompting campaigners to claim the polluting fossil fuel was in freefall.

The rapid rise of low-cost natural gas had already swept every planned coal plant into the dustbin in the United States. There are exactly zero new coal plants planned for the future in the North American market, and conversion (or closure) of many existing plants is underway. Europe also dropped sizable amounts of coal production in the last year, and Scotland went coal-free. But it’s China and India, both formerly regarded as “rising” markets for coal, that are throwing off previous estimates by making big reductions in planned use of coal.

The report said the amount of new capacity starting construction was down 62% in 2016 on the year before, and work was frozen at more than a hundred sites in China and India. In January, China’s energy regulator halted work on a further 100 new coal-fired projects, suggesting the trend was not going away.

Some of those halted plants weren’t just planned, they were stopped in mid-construction. As a result of those changes, an amazing thing is happening—improvements in climate change predictions.

The latest developments “appear to have brought global climate goals within feasible reach, raising the prospect that the worst levels of climate change might be avoided,” said the report.

Though entrenched players in the industry try to make any possible improvement in carbon emissions seem both costly and painful—a nearly unbearable burden—the truth is that the fantastic cost numbers are created by both throwing in the cost of aging plants on their last legs and assumptions that fossil fuels, especially coal, will remain the cheapest solutions available far into the future. But the truth is we’re already moving down the path of improvement, because coal is being undercut by both natural gas and renewables.

The reports mark a shift in sentiment from six months ago, when environmentalists warned governments were doing too little to carry out the Paris climate accord. Signed by 170 countries, it calls for holding global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in hopes of preventing sea level rise and other drastic change.

China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, said then that its coal use would rise until 2030. But later data showed the peak passed in 2013 and consumption is falling.

That change in the Chinese market is a major blow to US and Australian producers, who counted on a growing market to generate export sales. Australian mines in particular have high production costs, and without a ready market in China have both too much production and too high a cost for their home market. Sales are still increasing in some countries, such as Indonesia, but those don’t begin to match the lost tonnage to China.

The report said the amount of new capacity starting construction was down 62% in 2016 on the year before, and work was frozen at more than a hundred sites in China and India.

The argument from coal producers has long been that poor and emerging nations had no choice but to embrace coal, and failure to build coal plants meant being mired in “energy poverty.” But that argument is losing force in the face of a shifting market.

“Markets are demanding clean energy, and no amount of rhetoric from Donald Trump will be able to stop the fall of coal in the US and across the globe,” said Nicole Ghio, senior campaigner at the Sierra Club, a US-based NGO which has managed to force many US coal plants to close over the last decade.

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