Earth Could Warm 3 Degrees if Nations Keep Building Coal Plants, New Research Warns.
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.
Based on those findings, 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. At this rate, the transition away from existing and new coal isn’t happening fast enough to avoid climate chaos.
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.
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.
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.