To keep global warming within 1.5 °C of pre-industrial levels, there needs to be a substantial decline in the use of coal power by 2030 and in most scenarios, complete cessation by 2050. The members of the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), launched in 2017 at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, are committed to “phasing out existing unabated coal power generation and a moratorium on new coal power generation without operational carbon capture and storage”. The alliance has been hailed as a ‘political watershed’ and a new ‘anti-fossil fuel norm’. Here we estimate that the premature retirement of power plants pledged by PPCA members would cut emissions by 1.6 GtCO2, which is 150 times less than globally committed emissions from existing coal power plants. We also investigated the prospect of major coal consumers joining the PPCA by systematically comparing members to non-members. PPCA members extract and use less coal and have older power plants, but this alone does not fully explain their pledges to phase out coal power. The members of the alliance are also wealthier and have more transparent and independent governments. Thus, what sets them aside from major coal consumers, such as China and India, are both lower costs of coal phase-out and a higher capacity to bear these costs.