Earth Could Warm 3 Degrees if Nations Keep Building Coal Plants, New Research Warns

Several nations plan to build new coal power plants, with China alone approving nearly 100 gigawatts. Each gigawatt is the equivalent of installing more than 3 million solar panels.

Smoke billows from steel factories and coal-fired power plants in Baotou, a town in Daqi, Inner Mongolia, China. Credit: Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images
Smoke billows from steel factories and coal-fired power plants in Baotou, a town in Daqi, Inner Mongolia, China. Credit: Ryan Pyle/Corbis via Getty Images

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Earth is on track to significantly overshoot a critical global climate target, largely because not enough coal-fired power plants are being retired, researchers warned in two new reports. Some nations are even planning new coal projects despite promising two years ago to begin reducing their use of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel.

In 2021, nearly 200 nations agreed for the first time to phase down “unabated” coal-fired power plants as part of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit average global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a more ambitious goal of staying below 1.5 degrees.

But a new peer-reviewed study, published by two Swedish universities in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that current commitments by nations to wind down the use of coal-fired power aren’t enough to meet either of the Paris Agreement’s key targets. It says that the planet will likely warm upwards of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless far more plants shut down over the next five years. 

In fact, the world’s fleet of coal plants actually grew last year, according to a second report released Wednesday by Global Energy Monitor, which tracks energy projects around the world. That report found that coal capacity grew by 19.5 gigawatts in 2022—enough to power roughly 15 million homes—mostly because of new plants built by China and India. While the United States retired a record 13.5 gigawatts of coal power last year, China added 26.8 gigawatts and India added 3.5 gigawatts, with both countries planning to build more new plants this year.

China alone has approved nearly 100 gigawatts of additional coal power plants, an astonishing number in light of the most recent climate report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that the next seven years may be humanity’s last chance to rapidly wind down fossil fuel use in order to stave off runaway global warming. Each gigawatt is the equivalent of installing more than 3 million solar panels or over 330 utility-scale wind turbines, says the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Based on those findings, the Global Energy Monitor report’s authors said, the world would need to close coal plants nearly five times faster than is currently happening to have any chance of achieving the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. 

“The more new coal projects come online, the steeper the cuts and commitments need to be in the future,” Flora Champenois, lead author of the Global Energy Monitor analysis, said in the report. “At this rate, the transition away from existing and new coal isn’t happening fast enough to avoid climate chaos.”

Zeke Hausfather, a researcher at the nonprofit Berkeley Earth and a leading expert on climate modeling, wasn’t surprised by the recent study that projects the planet warming by nearly 3 degrees. 

Hausfather co-authored a scientific commentary on a study published last year in Nature that evaluated the net-zero pledges made by 154 nations and came to a similar conclusion: The planet could warm between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 based on how governments execute those plans. The best case scenario projected by that study foresees Earth warming just under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Its worst-case scenario, in which governments mostly fail to achieve their climate commitments, shows the planet warming well above 3 degrees.

“I think it is safe to say that global temperatures are heading to around 3°C by the end of the century under policies in place today,” he told me in an email. “We will need to do a lot more to put us on track to meet our climate goals.”

Scientists say each tenth of a degree the planet warms means more deadly and destructive consequences that could quickly spiral out of control. The world has already warmed more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. Experts say that staying below the thresholds agreed upon under the Paris climate accord could be humanity’s best chances to avoid some of the worst threats posed by rising temperatures, including accelerating mass extinctions, increasingly destructive extreme weather and more frequent and widespread famines.

It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty how the planet’s ecosystems and weather patterns will react to the warming temperatures, but scientists have done their best to make well-informed calculations. For instance, researchers predict that surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming could mean that about 14 percent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heat waves at least once every five years, while at 2 degrees warming that number jumps to 37 percent. Breaching 2 degrees could also mean that the kind of extreme heat wave that killed at least 90 people last year in Pakistan could become an annual event.

Varying forecasts also project tens of millions to hundreds of millions more people experiencing increasing scarcity of water and food due to expanding drought conditions. In perhaps one of the scariest predictions, some research suggests that if the Earth crosses 3 degrees of warming, around 12 percent of the current population living on land could be threatened by rising sea levels as glaciers melt around the world. “That amounts to 810 million people,” one scientist told Buzzfeed News.

Still, how exactly the climate crisis pans out in the coming decades depends largely on what humans decide to do. Scientists generally agree that the greatest obstacle to addressing the climate crisis is political, not technical. The solutions to tackle these problems already exist and can be implemented quickly if only governments and big corporations prioritized them, researchers say.

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That’s what climate scientist Michael Mann wants people to take away from the recent study out of Sweden, saying its projections for 3 degrees of warming seem “reputable enough,” but that he remains skeptical of any analyses that premise their forecasts on past actions.

“History is replete with examples—the Apollo mission, WWII mobilization, etc.—where the history of the world was fundamentally altered by a breakthrough commitment to mobilize around a specific threat or challenge. There’s no reason to think that isn’t possible here,” Mann wrote to me in an email. “The laws of physics are immutable. The laws of politics are not.”

More Top Climate News

Biden Administration Unveils $450 Million to Build Renewables on Coal Mines: There’s a silver lining in all the news about coal. The United States is leading the way on retiring coal power plants. And the Biden administration announced this week that $450 million in new federal infrastructure funding will go toward developers that build renewables on current or old coal mining sites, Zack Budryk reports for The Hill. That announcement, along with new federal guidance unveiled this week, could help revitalize ailing coal communities and pull them into the clean energy transition. 

Native Activist, Winona LaDuke, Resigns From Environmental Group: Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist best known for leading opposition to Minnesota’s Line 3 oil pipeline, has resigned as executive director of the environmental group Honor the Earth after the organization lost a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee, the Associated Press reports. “I take personal responsibility for the mistakes made,” LaDuke wrote in her resignation post. The former employee said LaDuke didn’t sufficiently address her allegations of sexual harassment by a coworker years ago.

New York Governor Walks Back Push to ‘Weaken’ Climate Law After Uproar: Earlier this week, I reported that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul was facing major backlash for supporting a plan to change how the state measured its emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that scientists say should become a priority in climate policy. On Wednesday, Hochul announced she was backing off from that plan in her budget, Grace Ashford and Dana Rubinstein report for the New York Times. The measure, however, could still advance this year under proposed legislation.

Today’s Indicator

50%

That’s how much more carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere now compared to pre-industrial levels, according to new data from the federal government, which noted that CO2 levels rose by more than two parts per million for the 11th consecutive year in 2022.