China, as part of its plans to restart its economy, has already approved the construction of new coal-fired power plants accounting for some 17 gigawatts of energy this year, sending a collective shiver down the spines of environmentalists. This is more coal plants than it approved in the previous two years combined, and the total capacity now under development in China is larger than the remaining fleet operating in the United States.
At the same time, China has touted investments in so-called “new infrastructure,” such as electric-vehicle charging stations and rail upgrades, as integral to its economic recovery. But frankly none of this will matter much if these new coal-fired power plants are built.
To be fair, the decisions to proceed with these coal projects largely rest in the hands of China’s provincial and regional governments and not in Beijing. However, this does not mean the central government has no power, nor that it won’t wear the reputational damage if the plants become a reality.
First, it is hard to see how China could meet one of its own commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to peak its emissions by 2030 if these new plants are built. The pledge relies on China retiring much of its existing and relatively young coal fleet, which has been operational only for an average of 14 years. Bringing yet more coal capacity online now is therefore either economically shortsighted or environmentally reckless.
It would also put at risk the world’s collective long-term goal under the Paris agreement to keep temperature increases within 1.5 degrees Celsius, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said requires halving of global emissions between 2018 and 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by the middle of the century.
It also is completely contrary to China’s own domestic interests, including President Xi Jinping’s desire to grow the economy, improve energy security and clean up the environment (or, as he says, to “make our skies blue again”).
But perhaps most importantly for the geopolitical hard heads in Beijing, it also risks unraveling the good will China has built up in recent years for staying the course on the fight against climate change in the face of the Trump administration’s retreat. This will especially be the case in the eyes of many vulnerable developing countries, including the world’s lowest-lying island nations that could face even greater risks if these plants are built.
For his part, former vice president Joe Biden has already got China’s thirst for coal in his sights. He speaks of the need for the United States to focus on how China is “exporting more dirty coal” through its support of carbon-intensive projects in its Belt and Road Initiative. Studies have found a Chinese role in more than 100 gigawatts of additional coal plants under construction across Asia and Africa, and even in Eastern Europe. It is hard to see how the first few months of a Biden administration would not make this an an increasingly uncomfortable reality for Beijing at precisely the time the world would be welcoming with open the arms the return of U.S. climate leadership.
As a new paper published by the Asia Society Policy Institute highlights, China’s decisions on coal will also be among the most closely watched as it finalizes its next five-year plan, due out in 2021, as well as its mid-century decarbonization strategy and enhancements to its Paris targets ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. And although China may also have an enormously positive story to tell — continuing to lead the world in the deployment of renewable energy in 2019 — it is China’s decisions on coal that will loom large.