Since 2000 or so, China — along with, to a lesser extent, India and other developing nations — has been on a coal binge, building coal-fired power plants at a breakneck pace. Coal is what powered the country's ludicrous, double-digit growth rates and lifted millions of rural Chinese out of poverty.
And coal power, more than any other single factor, is what has driven the steady rise in global carbon emissions. If the coal binge continues, global climate targets will almost certainly be out of reach, and much of the good done by coal will be undone by the ravages of climate change.
Happily, there are unmistakable signs that the binge is winding down.
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Coal consumption is falling in the US and some European countries — the UK grid recently experienced its first entirely coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution — but the big story is that China's coal demand has turned the corner. It's been falling for three years nowand the government shows every sign of wanting to support and accelerate the trend.
A close-up view of coal's global decline was offered earlier this year by researchers from Coalswarm, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. Drawing on the Global Coal Plant Tracker, they released their annual "Boom and Bust" report on the global coal pipeline.
Brad Plumer wrote about the same report last year, and it was mostly bad news. But a great deal changed in 2016. Though the big picture remains daunting, the shift from last year to this year is fairly astonishing and offers a ray of hope.