China is currently greenlighting new coal power projects at an alarming rate, equivalent to two coal plants every week, raising concerns among energy watchdogs who believe this pace is unsustainable for the country to meet its energy and environmental goals.
China’s government has made ambitious commitments to peak emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. In 2021, President Xi Jinping also pledged to stop building coal-powered plants abroad. However, in 2022, following regional power shortages, China initiated a surge in approvals for new coal projects and the revival of suspended ones. In that year, the government approved an unprecedented 106 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fired power capacity, with each gigawatt equivalent to a large coal power plant.
This trend of approvals continues, and it may even surpass the record set in the previous year, according to an analysis by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Their findings reveal that in the first half of 2023, authorities granted approvals for 52GW of new coal power, commenced construction on 37GW of new coal power, announced 41GW of new projects, and revived 8GW of previously shelved projects. Additionally, around half of the plants approved in 2022 had begun construction by the summer of 2023.
The analysts said: “Unless permitting is stopped immediately, China won’t be able to reduce coal-fired power capacity during the 15th five-year plan (2026–30) without subsequent cancellations of already permitted projects or massive early retirement of existing plants.”
While China has made significant strides in developing renewable energy sources, which the government aims to make a primary source of power, coal is still playing a supporting role. China is the world’s largest producer of renewable energy, encompassing wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
Nonetheless, challenges persist in the infrastructure for storing and distributing renewable energy. Shortfalls in grid interconnectivity between regions and issues with power supply for certain areas still necessitate the use of fossil fuels to maintain grid stability or integrate intermittent renewable energy sources. The report suggests that many of the approvals are not located in areas facing these grid stability or integration issues.
“Sixy per cent of new coal power projects are in grid regions where there is already an excess of coal-fired power capacity,” the report says. “The provinces adding large amounts of new coal-fired power are getting most of their added power generation from coal, contradicting the framing of coal power as a ‘supporting’ source for clean energy.”
Cory Combs, an analyst at Trivium China, noted that Chinese authorities seem to be prioritising uninterrupted energy supply and short-term economic recovery over the long-term environmental goals.
“There is more development than there is need for development,” he said. “When we look at it from an energy security perspective, [provincial level governments] they are putting an extremely high premium on short-term energy security. I don’t mean systemic issues, [I mean] even making sure there’s not even a two-hour power shortage. That’s taken over everything else, including the financials, but certainly decarbonisation.”
China currently holds the unfortunate title of being the world’s largest carbon emitter, contributing nearly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
The country is also highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with a large population and numerous environmental disasters. To address this, China’s 14th five-year plan aims to reduce vulnerability by 65% by 2025 and increase the share of renewable fuels in primary energy consumption from 20% to 25%.
China’s government has demonstrated its ability to drive significant change, as seen in its “war on pollution,” which has reduced global average pollution levels. Despite air pollution in China still exceeding World Health Organization guidelines by a considerable margin, it has seen a 42.3% reduction in toxic air since 2013. This reduction is expected to add an average of 2.2 years to the life expectancy of a Chinese resident if these trends persist.
While President Xi has committed to reducing coal consumption during the 2026-2030 period, analysts are concerned that the current wave of coal plant approvals, seemingly driven by short-term gains, could exert immense pressure on the latter years of this timeframe. Balancing the need for short-term economic stability with long-term environmental and energy goals is a challenge that China must navigate to fulfil its ambitious commitments.
“Xi’s credibility is largely tied to the 2030 goal. But some of the year-to-year thing I don’t take much stock in. They are overridden by other interests.”
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