Exploring Enablers for an Ambitious Coal Phaseout

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

Exploring Enablers for an Ambitious Coal Phaseout


  • Elina Brutschin International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria
  • Felix Schenuit German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Germany / Center for Sustainable Society Research, Universität Hamburg, Germany
  • Bas van Ruijven International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria
  • Keywan Riahi International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria


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Abstract:  To reach the mitigation goals of the Paris Agreement, many countries will have to phase out their coal power plants prematurely, i.e., before the end of their normal lifetimes, which will lead quite possibly to significant stranded assets. This could present a major challenge, particularly for many of the rapidly developing countries whose electricity demand is growing and which are currently expanding their coal fleets. Recent research shows that countries with aging power plants and decreasing coal consumption are more inclined to phase out coal, but little is known about where, why, and how coal power plants are being prematurely retired. In the context of the hybrid Paris Agreement, attention is increasingly shifting to domestic mitigation capacities and, alongside this—given the vested interests involved in different sectors—to state capacity to implement the transformations required to achieve deep decarbonization. In this article, we aim to study those capacities in the context of coal phaseout. We use a recent and comprehensive global dataset on coal power plants and employ a mixed-methods research design to (a) identify general emerging patterns with respect to premature coal fleet retirement, and (b) derive stylized types of political strategies to prematurely retire coal power plants. We find state capacity to be a robust predictor of general and premature coal retirement, and we identify three main strategies that countries have used to date to prematurely retire coal: (a) rein-in using top-down regulatory enforcement of environmental, climate, or other regulations that affect the operating licenses of coal plants; (b) buy-out or provision of compensation to companies and regions to appease vested interests; and (c) crowd out where accelerating market and price dynamics in the power sector crowd out coal. We propose that future research should explore more systematically the kinds of strategy that might be most promising in the regions and countries needing to rapidly phase out coal, taking into account their political structures, and also the implications that such strategies might have for global mitigation efforts.

Keywords:  climate mitigation; coal phaseout; premature coal retirement; strategic state capacity

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v10i3.5535


© Elina Brutschin, Felix Schenuit, Bas van Ruijven, Keywan Riahi. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.