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Record Surge in Global Coal Capacity Led by China

Continued expansion in China’s coal fleet and a slowdown in plant retirements in the United States and Europe in 2023 resulted in the highest net increase in global operating coal capacity since 2016, research group Global Energy Monitor said in its annual survey.

While the slower retirements outside China are expected to be a short-lived blip in a long-term trend, China’s massive annual additions of coal-fired capacity put the world’s second-largest economy “badly off track to meet several climate targets” this decade, Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) warned earlier this year.

Last year, global operating coal capacity increased by 2% as the world added a total of 69.5 gigawatts (GW) of coal power, with China representing two-thirds of new additions, according to GEM’s Global Coal Plant Tracker for 2023.

Worldwide, coal-fired power plant retirements were only 21.1 GW in 2023—the lowest capacity retired since 2011.

“Although new retirement plans and phaseout commitments continued to emerge, less coal capacity was retired in 2023 than in any other single year in more than a decade,” GEM said.

As a result, the world saw a net annual increase of 48.4 GW for the year—the highest net increase in operating coal capacity since 2016.

For the first time since 2019, the coal fleet outside China increased amid a slower pace of retirements, with lower retirements in developed countries, including the United States.

America retired 9.7 GW of coal capacity last year. This accounted for nearly half of the global capacity retired in 2023 but fell from the 14.7 GW retired in 2022 and the 21.7 GW record-high U.S. coal retirements in 2015, according to GEM’s data.

European Union member states and the United Kingdom represented roughly a quarter of retirements, with the UK, Italy, and Poland leading the region’s retirements for 2023.

Retirements are set to speed up going forward, reversing last year’s accelerated growth in global coal fleet capacity, GEM said.

“The accelerated growth in coal capacity may be short-lived, as low retirement rates in 2023 that contributed to coal’s rise are expected to pick up speed in the U.S. and Europe, offsetting the blip,” it noted.
“Coal’s fortunes this year are an anomaly, as all signs point to reversing course from this accelerated expansion,” said Flora Champenois, Coal Program Director for Global Energy Monitor.

However, retirements must return to accelerate and countries with plans for new coal plants must ensure most of these will never get built, “Otherwise we can forget about meeting our goals in the Paris Agreement and reaping the benefits that a swift transition to clean energy will bring,” Champenois added.

China, however, aims to ensure its energy security and back up the soaring solar and wind capacity additions with more coal capacity.

As a result, China and the rest of the world are on starkly different paths regarding new coal fleet construction.

New construction starts — one of the key indicators of growth in the sector — dropped outside of China for the second consecutive year and hit a record annual low since data collection began in 2015.

While new coal starting construction in the rest of the world fell to a record low, new coal starting construction in China jumped to an eight-year high, GEM’s coal tracker showed.

Due to its still massive coal fleet expansion, China “is badly off track to meet several climate targets the country set for 2025,” GEM and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said in a report earlier this year.

The pledge to “strictly control” new coal power is just one of the climate commitments that China is struggling to meet, the research groups noted.

“Overbuilding coal ‘just in case’ and with a ‘we’ll deal with that later’ approach is a costly and risky gamble, especially when alternative solutions are available to meet targets and address energy security,” GEM’s Champenois said in February.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for