Fifteen years ago, coal was entering a new golden age. China began commissioning dozens of new coal-fired power plants every year, and India, along with other developing countries, followed in its footsteps to meet growing electricity demand.
Coal plants in developed countries like the US and Germany have been major contributors to climate change, to be sure. But the more recent projects financed by East Asian countries pose a unique threat: Their conventional lifespan means they would run past the 2050 deadline by which the use of coal must be phased out to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If carbon-capture technology isn’t added to coal plants to reduce their emissions, that deadline moves up to 2040, a Climate Analytics study found.
Fortunately, the spree in coal development is slowing down. China and India have been cutting back on construction of new coal power plants since 2015 (although far too many plants are still in the pipeline), and other developing countries have started reconsidering the coal-first development model in favor of cheaper and less-polluting alternatives. In recent years, a number of major new coal projects have been delayed or canceled in countries from Kenya to Vietnam.
But China, Japan, and South Korea continued to back coal power as the top three public financiers. Their support is, in large part, because overseas coal projects have provided huge business opportunities for their companies, according to Tim Buckley, an expert on energy finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).