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Tracking the transition to a sustainable future

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Coal fired power station in Poland. (Credit: Greenpeace Switzerland)

Credible information is key to those advocating for a sustainable world. James Browning and Ted Nace explain how CoalSwarm’s tools power understanding of where the transition to sustainable energy supplies is working – and where it isn’t. 


A climate conference sponsored by coal companies might sound discouraging, but here is a reason to be hopeful about last week’s COP meetings in Katowice, Poland. More than 400 private investment firms representing some $32 trillion in assets put out a statement calling for governments to do far more to transition away from fossil fuels and phase out coal entirely. These old friends of coal—who financed the construction of thousands of coal-fired power plants around the world—are now among its foes.

What did it take for these private financiers to become proactive about climate change? According to a representative of one fund with $80 billion in assets it was the “zombie-like response” to climate change in much of the world.

“Zombie” is also a good word to describe most coal-fired plants and other coal projects these days—things that shouldn’t be alive but are, thanks in part to the billions they receive in public financing from a few governments. Despite the anti-coal movement’s successes—such as preventing the construction of new coal-fired plants in Europe and the United States—we face a crisis in Asia, where the governments of China, Japan, and South Korea are financing a massive expansion of coal power in developing countries.

Cutting coal use by two-thirds by 2030, as recommended by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will depend in part on cutting the coal industry off from its from its largest remaining financial lifeline: the billions it receives in public financing.

Phasing out coal will require a broad international effort. Toward that end, in 2013 over 50 civil society groups formed the EndCoal alliance to share news and resources. To support the efforts of all these and other allied groups such as the Powering Past Coal Alliance, CoalSwarm provides three tools. The Global Coal Plant Tracker provides an interactive plant-by-plant resource on 14,000 coal-fired generating units in operation or proposed since 2010. The new Global Coal Finance Tracker shines light on a crucial driver of the industry: the cross-border flow of billions of dollars from public finance institutions to coal-fired power plant projects. The CoalWire news digest provides a weekly roundup to activists worldwide (free subscriptions here).

To date, CoalSwarm’s trackers have provided data used by over 120 research and advocacy projects, including the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C, the Lancet’s Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, the OECD Environment Directorate’s Clean Power for a Cool Planet, and the Urgewald Coal Exit List.

The success of the global mobilization on coal has been nothing short of astonishing. Between 2016 and 2018, coal plant construction starts globally dropped by 73%, allowing the focus of efforts to begin shifting from stopping new coal plants to retiring existing ones. Such efforts are inspired by the rapid transition of countries like Canada, where the share of coal in the power mix fell by nearly 50% between 2005 and 2016, and which is currently on track to be completely coal free by 2030. In order to meet the rapid decarbonization goals necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, similar progress will be needed elsewhere, but affordable generation and storage solutions are already being widely deployed. All that remains is the political will to continue building momentum.


James Browning is Communications Director and Ted Nace is Executive Director of CoalSwarm, a network of researchers developing shared information resources on fossil fuel impacts and alternatives.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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