According to official documents, local governments in China approved more new coal power in the first three months of 2023 than in the entirety of 2021.

Analysis conducted by Greenpeace reveals that between January and March of this year, at least 20.45 gigawatts (GW) of coal power were approved, compared to 8.63 GW during the same period in 2022. In all of 2021, 18 GW of coal power was approved.

A five-year plan initiated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2016 placed significant emphasis on reducing coal usage and developing clean energy sources. In 2020, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pledged that the country would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Following these commitments, there was a decline in coal power approvals as local governments aimed to align with Beijing’s priorities. However, a surge in coal power approvals occurred in 2020 when the five-year plan concluded, as local governments anticipated more stringent restrictions on coal expansion in the subsequent phase.

In 2021, China experienced extensive power outages, prompting a significant shift in the CCP’s energy priorities. As factories resumed operations to meet global demand after the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of electricity soared. However, the government had capped prices, leading many power plants to reduce output rather than operate at a loss.

China relies on coal for over half of its energy consumption. The government’s focus shifted from reducing coal to prioritising energy security when homes in the colder northern regions faced the prospect of a harsh winter without heating. This resulted in the belief that building more power plants would enhance energy security, despite it being a misconception, according to Xie Wenwen, a climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace.

Global energy prices soared further due to the war in Ukraine, reinforcing the narrative around energy security.

Advocates argue that meeting China’s growing energy demands requires a more flexible grid, rather than an increase in coal usage. A recent report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air highlighted that the technologies for storing clean energy are not yet sufficiently mature to be deployed at the scale necessary to support China’s plans for expanding renewable energy use.

Over 75% of China’s coal, wind, solar, and hydro resources are located in the western part of the country, while more than 70% of power consumption occurs in central and eastern China. The efficient rebalancing of this disparity remains a challenge for policymakers.

Nevertheless, the 14th five-year plan, covering the period until 2025, stipulates that over half of the increased energy demands during this period should be met by renewables. From 2010 to 2021, renewable generation in China witnessed an average annual growth rate of 19.2%, primarily driven by wind and solar power.

However, Xi stated last year that coal would remain a significant component of China’s energy mix and would be challenging to change in the short term.



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