Thousands of Planned Coal Plants, if Built, Could Doom Efforts to Contain Global Warming

I landed in Calcutta (Kolkata, if you are a stickler for official names) on November 30, the day the world leaders, policy makers, and environmental activists gathered in Paris to figure out how to curb climate change. Officially, it’s wintertime in this city of my birth, but the air on Monday night was anything but chilly. Instead, it was uncomfortably muggy. The only sign of winter was the hazy air — a regular year-end feature in this overcrowded, traffic-choked metropolis in eastern India.

The unusually warm weather might be an anomaly, at least that’s what the local weathermen say, but in my experience, winters here have certainly become milder in recent years. (While winter is receding here, the waters are rising. Calcutta is among coastal cities across the world most vulnerable to increased flooding due to climate change.)

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The rains in Chennai, India have broken a 100-year-old record. The image above was taken back in October. (image: McKay Savage/Flickr)

Meanwhile farther south by the tip of the Indian peninsula, another coastal city, Chennai, has been flooded for two months due to torrential rains that have submerged homes and disrupted normal life. The Indian Army has been deployed there to rescue people stranded in their homes. The rains have broken a 100-year-old record with one day's rainfall covering an entire month's average in a city that’s more used to blazing heat than damp days.

When I spoke with a journalist friend living there last morning (it’s past 3 a.m. Thursday morning here as I write this), she was stuck in her second floor apartment with her invalid mother and little girl with no power. Her cellphone, the only way she can connect with the outside world, had barely any charge left. The first floor of her building was completely inundated and she feared the waters would soon rise further. “Even if the rescue boats come, I can’t leave because they most likely won’t be able to evacuate my mother,” she told me, before I hung up, not wanting to waste her cellphone charge needlessly. I haven’t heard from her since.

This is it: the real, harsh, personal face of climate change. Given such stark news, it was doubly depressing to read a new report by Climate Action Tracker that shows that thousands of new coal plants being planned in countries across the world, including India, could doom efforts to contain global warming.

If all the 2,440 coal plants in the pipeline were to be built, by 2030, emissions from coal power would be 400 percent higher than what is consistent with a 2°C pathway, says the “Coal Gap” report, which was released in Paris on Tuesday. Using data from Earth Island Institute’s CoalSwarm project’s updated Global Coal Plant Tracker, the researchers calculated the effect of coal-fired power on global emissions and concluded that even with no new construction, in 2030, emissions from coal-fired power generation would still be more than 150 percent higher than what is consistent with holding warming below 2°C.

The researchers based their assessment on planned new coal plants both globally, and in the eight countries that each plan to build more than 5GW of coal power capacity: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines, Turkey — plus the EU28. In emerging economies, like India, the plants are being planned in hopes of meeting rapidly increasing electricity demand, while in the EU28, new coal plants will mainly replace existing capacity.

Of course, the biggest offender here is China, which has 722 planned plants that would emit 2.2 gigatons of carbon emissions a year. But India isn’t lagging too far behind. The report notes that the large amounts of new coal capacity planned in India and Turkey “could have a relatively significant impact.” 

“In India, stopping new coal fired power plants to be built could mitigate 0.7 GtCO [gigatons of carbon emissions], provided low carbon technologies are implemented,” it adds.

The researchers say, ideally, plans for these plants should be canceled, but I sincerely doubt that will happen. At least not here in India, where coal companies have deep ties with the political class, and where the environment minister (who’s currently in Paris) gives that same old line about the floods in Chennai being a “natural calamity” that “can’t be directly linked to climate change.”

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