National Pledges to Phase Out Coal Power are Insufficient

The Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), the leading international coalition aiming to phase out unabated coal power worldwide, has attracted 30 countries and 22 cities and states since it launched in 2017. Despite its growing membership and ambitious goals, the PPCA will have a very limited effect on climate change, according to the paper “Prospects for powering past coal” published in Nature Climate Change and co-authored by researchers from CEU’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy.

“To keep global warming below 1.5°C, as aimed for in the Paris climate agreement, we need to phase-out unabated coal—that is, coal without capturing the carbon emissions—by the middle of this century. The Powering Past Coal Alliance is a good start, but so far, only wealthy countries which don’t use much coal and some countries which have never used any coal power have joined,” said the study’s lead author, Jessica Jewell, an assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden who received both her MSc and PhD from CEU.

By analyzing a worldwide database of coal power plants, the researchers show that pledges from PPCA members will result in a reduction of about 1.6 gigatonnes of C02 from now until 2050. This represents only around 1/150th of projected C02 emissions over the same time period from all coal power plants that are already operating globally.

To investigate the likelihood of expanding the PPCA, the researchers compared its current members with countries that are not part of the alliance. They found that PPCA members that use coal power are wealthy countries with small electricity demand growth, older power plants and low coal extraction and use. Most strikingly, these countries invariably rank higher in terms of democratic control over governments, government transparency and safeguards against political corruption. These characteristics are dramatically different from major coal users such as China and India, where electricity demand is rapidly growing, young coal power plants are responsible for a large share of electricity production and government transparency and independence rank lower. 

“All the countries that are currently making promises to get rid of coal power are rich and, more importantly, well-governed and protected from corruption. These countries also have the resources to mitigate the economic impact of closing down coal mines by providing compensation to affected companies, communities and workers,” said Professor Aleh Cherp. “However, this is insufficient to meet the climate targets. We can’t be complacent or relax. We need to find ways to reduce the use of coal in countries that don’t have the economic means or sophisticated governance to meet the PPCA’s current membership requirements.”

The research suggests that phasing out coal is only feasible when it does not incur large-scale losses, such as closing down newly constructed power plants or profitable coal mines. Moreover, countries that rely on coal need the economic and political capacity to withstand losses that they will inevitably incur when attempting to limit or stop the use of coal.

“It is important to evaluate the costs of and capacities for climate action, to understand the political feasibility of climate targets. The high costs of coal phase-out in many countries mean that only a few countries have capacities to implement it.  If we want to draw in more countries, instead of just advertising benefits, we have to reduce such costs. We don’t need to further persuade countries on the benefits of stable climate or clean air—everyone wants clear air—but we do have to find a way to make reducing coal use cheaper for countries that depend on it,” explained Cherp.

“Prospects for powering past coal” was researched and written by Jessica Jewell; Vadim Vinichenko, a CEU PhD graduate currently with Bergen University in Norway; Lola Nacke, a master’s student at CEU; and Professor Aleh Cherp. This research was supported by CEU’s Intellectual Themes Initiative and Research Council Norway.