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?

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

What is the situation in South Africa?

As the Global economy begins to turn its back on coal, South Africa is one country that is seriously falling behind.

The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Program has been hailed internationally as being World class, and has over the past five years added a substantive chunk of renewable energy to the grid. However a number of barriers still exist within South Africa that are preventing the wide spread uptake of renewable energy and stunting the growth of a manufacturing sector based on renewable energy. The result is that the renewable energy industry is not realizing its full potential in, adding additional capacity to the constrained electricity system in South Africa, employment that could be achieved in this sector through local manufacturing has not taken off, and benefits to South African's who want to install rooftop PV and feed electricity into the grid are not as yet a reality.

The South African government urgently needs to set ambitious targets towards the ultimate goal of achieving 94% of the country's electricity from renewable energy by 2050. In view of the fact that currently more than 90% of South Africa's electricity comes from coal, a fundamental shift is required in terms of government policy.

South Africa urgently needs to set a new trajectory in the energy space that will ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This is imperative to ensure that we are not left behind as the Global economy increasingly moves towards a future based on renewable energy.  Read more about coal and climate change on our reports page.