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The story of coal in the 21st century, in one amazing map

See every coal plant in the world from 2000 on.

coal plants
Orange circles of doom.
Carbon Brief

I love data journalism and I love a good map, and the folks at Carbon Brief have just released a doozy of a visual that combines both. Using data from CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker, it shows the location of every coal plant in the world — planned, under construction, operating, and retiring — from 2000 up through the present.

It’s endlessly fascinating. You can search by zip code, rotate, even zoom in super close and get a satellite view. Here’s the Yangtze Delta around Shanghai, the world’s heaviest concentration of coal capacity. All the yellow blobs are coal plants, their diameter relative to the size.

coal around the yangtze Carbon Brief

There’s about 97 gigawatts of coal capacity in a 15.5-square-mile area here. If the Yangtze Delta were its own country, it would have the fourth most coal capacity in the world, after China, the US, and India. Yikes.

That image was sent to me by Simon Evans, who led the project for Carbon Brief and has a long post digging into the details and pulling out some larger narratives. It’s all very well done and highly recommended.

Consider this post an amuse-bouche — a few images to whet your appetite for the bigger meal over at Carbon Brief.

Coal in the 21st century, part one: China and India build like mad

The biggest economic story and the biggest climate story of the 21st century are the same story: China and coal. Starting around 2000, China’s economy grew at an amazing pace, driven almost entirely by coal-fired energy. Watch this:

coal in china Carbon Brief

It’s like the finale of a fireworks show. Chinese coal capacity grew five times between 2000 and 2017, to reach 935 GW — half the world’s total.

Now coal power in China seems to have peaked, though it has surged again lately. The Chinese government is cracking down hard on air quality and struggling to clean up its coal fleet, but ultimately, no one knows what path it will choose.

India had the second-fastest rate of coal growth:

coal in india Carbon Brief

Capacity tripled from 2000 to reach 215 GW (less than a quarter of China’s). But coal is running into huge headwinds in India right now, getting undercut by renewables, and dozens of GW of capacity are threatened with premature retirement. The big question is whether everything else, especially India’s ambitious solar program, can scale up fast enough to obviate the need for all those big purple blobs.

Together, China and India helped drive global coal capacity up to 2,000 GW in 2017.

Part two: the US and the EU begin retiring coal

With the US, we get a beautiful new phenomenon: yellow blobs, like dying stars, becoming gray and winking out. Retirements! Check this out:

coal in the US Carbon Brief

According to CoalSwarm, 61 GW of US coal has retired in the past six years, and 58 GW more is on the chopping block. “This would shrink the US fleet by two-fifths,” Evans writes, “from 327 GW in 2000 to 220 GW” (comparable to India’s).

Despite the flailing of the Trump administration — which is currently contemplating a ham-handed coal bailout premised on “national security” — coal is on the way out in the US, for a million reasons. The gray blobs are only spreading.

Here’s the EU, with a similar story: slow decline through about 2014, then a burst of gray blobs, with not much planned for the future.

coal in the EU Carbon Brief

Renewable generation passed coal generation in the EU in 2017. If all EU countries fulfill their current pledges, EU coal capacity will fall below 100 GW, less than half its capacity in 2000.

Part three: the future

The optimistic way to look at things is that China and India are accelerating down the same path as the US and the EU — coal peaking and declining — a few years behind, but on a faster schedule. The International Energy Agency estimates that global investment in coal has peaked and is headed rapidly down. CoalSwarm’s latest global coal status report shows growth in coal rapidly slowing; it estimates global coal capacity could peak as early as 2022.

Around 2014, coal peaked in China and started declining in the US and EU; that’s also when global coal generation and global carbon emissions peaked and began declining. Two more graphs tell the tale.

Look at the line labeled “load factor” — that has to do with how often coal plants are run:

coal load factor Carbon Brief

It plunged around 2008 and then began plunging again around 2014, getting down near 50 percent. That helps explain why global coal power generation and carbon emissions peaked that same year.

This was going on while global coal capacity was rising. New plants were being built even as existing plants were running less, crushing the economics for all concerned.

Thus, even as capacity continued rising in the 2010s, the coal pipeline — planned coal plants — began shrinking rapidly around 2015, and retirements began growing:

coal pipeline Carbon Brief

A lot of what’s going on is old coal plants, near the end of their life span, finally closing. While that’s good news, it’s also the easiest part of the job, coal-wise. Closing the newer ones, built in the 2000s, will be a steeper political climb.

But it must happen for any chance of hitting the common international target of no more than 2 degrees Celsius warming (much less the more challenging stretch goal of 1.5 degrees). All the purple blobs must disappear in short order and gray blobs must begin eating the globe. The US and EU need to be coal-free by 2030 and China and India a decade or so after. Under those circumstances, lots of coal plants are going to be retired early, i.e., “stranded.”

While another 200 GW of coal capacity is currently being built and 450 GW more are planned (a disaster for the 2-degree target), there’s a decent chance much less of that will produce power than currently expected.

It is possible, if you squint just right, to see a global inflection point around 2014. Coal’s meteoric rise through the 2000s finally ran its course and renewables took hold.

Just maybe, on the other side of that inflection point, renewable energy will grow and coal will fall, as fast as coal once rose in the 2000s. We’d better hope so.