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China’s coal plant approvals highest in seven years, research finds

An aerial view of the machinery at the coal terminal of Huanghua port in Hebei province on Feb. 1. (China Daily/via REUTERS)
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China last year approved the largest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015, a new report has found, showing how the world’s largest emitter still relies on a fossil fuel that scientists say must be quickly phased out to avoid the worst consequences of a warming atmosphere.

It also underscores the way China is at odds with the global shift away from greenhouse gas-emitting forms of energy — and from its own pledges to reduce its emissions.

The rush to build new coal-fired projects across the country meant that authorities granted permits for 106 gigawatts of capacity across 82 locations in 2022, the highest number in seven years and four times higher than in 2021.

This is according to new report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a Finland-based nongovernmental organization, and the Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit that tracks fossil fuel infrastructure.

“The speed at which projects progressed through permitting to construction in 2022 was extraordinary, with many projects sprouting up, gaining permits, obtaining financing and breaking ground apparently in a matter of months,” said Flora Champenois, research analyst at GEM.

“China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development,” she said.

With coal surge, China puts energy security and growth before climate

Not all those projects will necessarily materialize. But local governments appear to be moving as quickly as possible, with 50 gigawatts of construction now underway.

Already responsible for about half of the world’s coal production and consumption, the new facilities in China are equivalent to about six times the amount of total coal capacity added in the rest of the world.

Becoming the main holdout in a global trend to phase out coal runs counter to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to cast China as a climate leader. In 2020, he pledged to peak the country’s carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060, a move hailed as a breakthrough by environmentalists who hoped Xi would play a more active role in limiting the Earth’s warming.

Coming as the Trump administration finalized the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accords, some wondered whether Beijing, not Washington, might lead a global transition toward renewable energy sources.

Modeling suggests that hitting the Paris agreement goal of limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels is only possible if green energy adoption happens much faster and greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere.

China has made strides toward enabling a faster global energy transition. It pledged to stop building coal-fired power plants overseas. Massive installations of wind turbines and solar panels — 125 gigawatts worth last year — as well as surging adoption of electric vehicles have bolstered a sense that Beijing is committed to embracing carbon-reducing technologies.

But undercutting China’s progress toward a low-carbon economy is its inability to quit coal, which is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. Xi has said that the country will begin to “phase down” coal consumption from 2026 onward, but he has not said when new builds will stop.

As China mines more coal, levels of a more potent greenhouse gas soar

Preliminary data suggested China’s carbon dioxide output rose by 1.3 percent last year compared to 2021, reversing what had been the longest decline of emissions in recent history as sporadic coronavirus lockdowns slowed economic activity for around a year up until the summer of 2022, according to an analysis by CREA released earlier this month.

That uptick was primarily due to a record 3.3 percent rise in coal consumption and came even as output of steel and cement — the two largest users of the fossil fuel outside of power production — fell significantly. (CREA’s lead analyst, Lauri Myllyvirta, isn’t sure the numbers add up, because industry specific figures suggested to him that less coal was used than reported. That uncertainty is in itself troubling, he said.)

Coordinating with China on climate has proved difficult for the United States and European nations as negotiations are routinely interrupted by geopolitics. Beijing suspended talks in August after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims as its own. Communication resumed three months later after a face-to-face meeting between President Biden and Xi in November.

But the main obstacles to China taking a faster path toward peaking its carbon dioxide emissions are domestic. Repeated electricity shortages and turbulent global energy markets caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have heightened the Chinese government’s long-standing concerns over the need for secure, reliable sources of power.

And then there is the problem of producing enough electricity to meet the growing demands of 1.4 billion people who on average only use about 40 percent of what a United States resident uses.

Experts believe China’s leadership considers coal essential to making sure that the lights stay on and factories keep humming even when energy systems are unexpectedly disrupted, as happened in August when an unprecedented heat wave caused hydropower shortages.

How China, the world’s top polluter, avoids paying for climate damage

Building power plants is also a way for local governments to deliver a short-term boost to the economy by creating jobs and construction contracts, even if the projects are unlikely to make money in the long run.

Officials sometimes defend the decision to construct new plants as a necessary evil to better distribute energy production, which doesn’t necessarily mean the power sector will use more coal or emit more carbon dioxide overall.

Even if that is true, building hundreds of brand-new coal power plants will make meeting China’s climate targets harder and costlier as the coal lobby’s interest in protecting their investments grows, the report’s authors noted.

“The worst-case scenario is that the pressure to make use of the newly built coal power plants … leads to a moderation in China’s clean energy build out,” they wrote. “This could mean a major increase in China’s CO2 emissions over this decade, undermining the global climate effort, and could even put China’s climate commitments in danger.”