Could 2016 be the year we break free from coal?

We’ve barely entered 2016, but China and the US  the world’s largest coal producers  have already embarked on sweeping changes to cut out coal. Could 2016 be the year we break free from this dirty fossil fuel?

2016 isn't going well for this dirty fossil fuel

It’s the centuries old “addiction” the world can’t kick. Coal-burning power plants remain the single largest source of human-made CO2 emissions worldwide, and burning coal is a serious health hazard  as those suffering from Beijing’s smog know all too well.

But 2016 is already shaping up to be the year where we start to leave our fossil fuelled world behind, and move towards a renewable future.

Last year, the coal industry experienced a dramatic drop. Global coal consumption fell between 90 and 180 million tonnes in the first half of the year  the largest decrease on record.

Politics shifted too. Countries most impacted by climate change spoke out against coal. The president of the low-lying island nation of Kiribati demanded a global moratorium on coal mining. Meanwhile the Philippines launched the world’s first national human rights investigation into 50 big polluters.

But perhaps the biggest blow to coal happened in December, when world leaders at the COP21 Paris climate talks signed an agreement that left no doubt investing in coal was a risky endeavor, at best.

Once coal’s “allies,” China and the US are now starting to separate from the dirty fossil fuel. Here’s what they’ve done in just the last few weeks:

Air Pollution in Beijing. 19 Jan, 2012 © Greenpeace / Yin Kuang

China is closing down thousands of mines

In the final days of 2015, China announced plans to halt new coal mine approvals for the next three years and close 1,000 mines as part of its fight against air pollution.

This is astonishing, considering that only two years ago, some predicted China would be burning over a billion tonnes more coal by 2020. Instead, China’s coal consumption has been in decline for almost two years. Prior to the Paris summit, China even announced its intention to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 at the latest. And more recently, Beijing announced it is banning coal in six of its districts to continue its fight against air pollution.

These drastic changes send another signal that the Chinese government is serious about tackling coal’s impact on worsening air quality in big cities, as well as its impact on water shortages and ecological degradation in vulnerable land-locked regions.

It’s an inevitable step as China moves away from its coal addiction. 

Black Thunder Coal Mine in USA, owned by Arch Coal. 20 Oct, 2012 © Greenpeace / Tim Aubry

Bans and bankruptcy for coal in the US

President Obama promised in his State of the Union address earlier this week that he would charge more for coal and gas companies to mine and drill on US public lands. Today, he made good on his word.

The US Department of Interior – the part of the Obama administration in charge of public lands  has just announced that it will review the program that allows coal companies to mine public lands for cheap, and it will take the impacts of climate change into account. What’s more, during the multi-year review process it will halt new federal coal leases.

This is a huge win in for the climate, considering that 40 percent of US coal comes from public lands. The ban will keep billions of tonnes of coal in the ground.

President Obama speaks at his last State of the Union address.

The news comes just days after Arch Coal, the second largest coal mining company in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. (Over the past few years, nearly 50 coal companies in the US have gone bankrupt. )

Arch Coal is a textbook example of the twisted coal industry in the US. The company has worked to gut basic environmental and public health protections and cheat miners, all while cooking the climate and destroying complex ecosystems across the United States. Even as its profits have declined over the last few years, it has nearly doubled its CEO’s salary.

Its failure now  before President Obama’s reforms kick in  is further proof that coal is on its last legs in the US.

And there’s more. The final kick in the teeth to the US coal industry this week comes from New York state, where Governor Cuomo released new goals to phase out coal-fired power plants statewide by 2020.

New York state has committed to shutting down all coal-fired power plants by 2020!

2016… and beyond

While we have made amazing progress in reducing the power and size of the coal industry, the transition to clean, renewable energy can’t come quick enough for the climate.

Fortunately, new challenges to the coal industry continue to stream in every single day. And the price of renewable energy keeps getting cheaper all over the world!

These first weeks of 2016 have made it clear that coal is continuing, perhaps even accelerating, its downward spiral. The end of coal is near. So is the dawn of our renewable energy future.

Kelly Mitchell is the Climate Campaign Director at Greenpeace USA.

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