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Coal-fired generation capacity growth in China far outstrips closures in rest of world

21 November 2019

China raised its coal-fired power capacity by 42.9 gigawatts (GW), or about 4.5% of total capacity, in the 18 months to June. Over the same period, capacity in the rest of the world fell significantly, according to a study published on November 20.

Coal-fired power plant in Inner Mongolia, northern China -  Image: Shutterstock
Coal-fired power plant in Inner Mongolia, northern China - Image: Shutterstock

The report by US-based research NGO Global Energy Monitor also estimated that China had another 121.3 GW of coal-fired power plants under construction.

Coal-fired plants are a major source of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, as well as other pollutants. Other countries around the world reduced their capacity by 8.1 GW over that period as old coal plants were retired faster than new ones were built.

The increase in China followed a relaxation of restrictions by local governments from 2014 to 2016 aiming to boost growth figures, while formerly suspended projects have also been restarted, Global Energy Monitor said.

To cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the Chinese government had promised to drive an energy revolution aimed at dramatically reducing its reliance on coal, which met 59% of its total energy needs last year.

But despite a rapid rise in renewable energy capacity and a transition to natural gas for household heating, coal consumption has continued to increase. China approved new 40 coal mines in the first three quarters of 2019.

China’s total coal-fired power capacity stands at more than 1,000 GW. Global Energy Monitor said it needed to close more than 40% of that to meet greenhouse gas reductions required to keep global temperature rises well below 2 degrees Celsius.

“China’s continued expansion of its coal fleet is not inevitable,” it said. The government could strengthen policies discouraging coal plants, support low-carbon power and begin a transition toward clean energy, it said.

Christine Shearer, an analyst at the NGO said: “China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet.”

More than 30 countries plan to phase out coal-fired power to help reduce carbon emissions and keep global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels. The UK has just five coal-fired power stations, with one in south Wales scheduled to close next year and two more to be converted to gas within the next two years.

Global Energy Monitor said the gulf between China and other countries was on track to widen as Beijing pursued plans to build more new plants than the rest of the world combined.

China is also helping to finance a quarter of all the new coal projects in the rest of the world, including in South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The country’s coal investments, including domestic projects, mean it is backing more than half of all global coal power capacity under development.

“Instead of expanding further, China needs to make significant reductions to its coal fleet over the coming decade,” Shearer said.

The report says China’s continued expansion of coal power is not inevitable, and urges Beijing to strengthen its policies to discourage coal plant construction and incentivise low-carbon energy.

“The path that China’s central government chooses could make or break Paris climate goals,” the report says.

Environmental groups have accused Beijing of relaxing efforts to curb coal consumption, pointing to remarks in October by Premier Li Keqiang, who urged China to make greater use of its coal “endowment” by building clean power plants.

While solar and wind power have already achieved price parity with fossil fuels, some Chinese policymakers say renewables are unreliable. There are also concerns that decarbonisation will hurt coal regions like Shanxi, which has struggled to find alternative sources of growth.

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