SINGAPORE — China approved more than 50 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power in the first half of 2023, research by environment group Greenpeace showed, with the world’s top carbon polluter focused on energy security rather than cutting fossil fuel consumption.
As scientists and environmentalists urge governments to make deeper emission cuts after record-breaking heatwaves across the globe, the impact of extreme weather has spurred China to build even more coal-fired plants as it tries to counter the effects of drought on hydropower production and avoid power outages.
“China’s government has put energy security and energy transition at odds with one another,” said Greenpeace’s Gao Yuhe, who led the research published on Thursday.
Beijing has promised to bring carbon emissions to a peak before 2030, but another pledge made by President Xi Jinping to start cutting coal use over the 2026-2030 period is now under threat, Gao said.
“Beijing has clearly stated that coal power will still grow at a ‘reasonable pace’ into 2030,” she said.
China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) did not immediately reply to a fax sent requesting a comment on the coal plants and their power generation policies.
Coal output in China surged 9% to 4.5 billion tons last year, more than half the world’s total, and continued to rise this year, government data showed, with coal plants under pressure to offset a 22.9% decline in hydropower generation during the first half.
The increase in China’s coal usage reflects a worldwide pattern. The International Energy Agency said last week that global coal consumption reached a record 8.3 billion tons in 2022, with strong growth in Asia offsetting declines elsewhere.
In March, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s state economic planner, said it would “strengthen” coal’s supporting role in the overall energy mix.
China has built more than 1,000 GW of coal-fired capacity from 2000 to 2022, enough to power the entire European Union and amounting to 69% of total global additions, according to data compiled by the Global Energy Monitor think tank.
Officially, many of China’s new coal-fired power plants are designed to provide back-up for clean but weather-dependent power sources like wind, solar, and hydro, especially during droughts or peak consumption periods.
But China’s “built-in bias to coal” is preventing it from investing more in critical energy storage infrastructure that could make renewable power more reliable, Gao said.
The scale of the new builds also suggests the main motivation is economic growth and the argument that they are backing renewables is becoming less convincing, said Jorrit Gosens, a climate researcher at the Australian National University.
“The story has long been that capacity does not matter so much, as long as these plants are not also run at high rates of utilisation, but you have to be quite an optimist to repeat that by now,” he said.
While coal power inches up, China’s renewable installations have also continued to soar, with capacity rising 109 GW in the first half, according to NEA data.
“The good news, as always, remains that renewables keep getting more competitive, and are being built at a record pace,” said Gosens. “That will start to eat into coal’s market share fairly soon.” — Reuters