If coal kept up the pace of growth of the past decade for the next 10 years, there would be virtually no chance at all of hitting our collective climate targets — the target agreed upon in Cancun (2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels) or the shared aspiration agreed upon in Paris (“well below” 2 degrees, ideally 1.5).

If coal continues its downward trajectory, the targets may still be within reach. Barely.

Here’s the key graph.

The carbon budgets for coal are in blue. The red is cumulative emissions from existing coal plants. Orange is from plants currently under construction. And green is from proposed plants, assuming that 37 percent of them are built (roughly the average over the past few years).

To hit the 2C target, pretty much all coal plants in the pre-construction phase will have to be abandoned. All construction projects that are currently frozen will have to be abandoned. And a number of coal plants will have to be retired before their 40-year life spans. To hit 1.5C, a lot of plants will have to be retired early.

Here’s what a phaseout of coal capacity would have to look like to hit the respective targets.

To hit 2C, developed nations would have to zero out coal by 2040, China by 2050, and the rest of the developing world by 2060. Hitting 1.5C means moving all those deadlines up by a decade.

How realistic is this? Here’s what the report says:

For the Cancun [2C] scenario, the assumed rate of global retirements until 2027 would be 25 GW per year in the OECD, a level that is on par with the current trend … and 15 GW per year in China, consistent with China’s announced goal of retiring 100 GW of current capacity … the Cancun scenario through 2029 could be achieved without retiring plants younger than 40 years. After 2030, younger plants would need to be retired.

Meeting the Paris schedule would require an immediate doubling of the current pace of retirements, a prospect that appears optimistic at best.

So if the current downturn in coal continues for 10 years or so and then steadily accelerates, 2C is still in reach. To hit 1.5C, we would have to jam the accelerator to the floor and leave it there. “Optimistic at best” is about right.

Still, good news is better than bad news. The developing world coal binge was on the verge of eliminating any remaining breathing room on climate change. If current trends continue — a big if, for a million reasons — there still might just be some hope.

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