Last year, China approved the highest number of new coal-fired power plants since 2015, according to a new report, showing how the world’s largest emitter still relies on a fossil fuel that scientists agree must be quickly phased out to address the climate crisis. China approved the construction of 106GW of coal power capacity, four times more than in 2022.
The report, released this week by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), found that 50 GW worth of coal-processing infrastructure out of the new 106 GW approved are already under construction across China. Many were identified as “supporting” baseload capacity to ensure the stability of the power grid and to avoid potential blackouts, the authors wrote.
“China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development,” Flora Champenois, a research analyst at GEM, said in a statement. “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.”
A fast coal expansion
The massive new wave of coal power plants seems to be a response to last summer’s electricity shortages in China, caused by a historic drought and a heatwave, and exacerbated by outdated grid management. While the country is making progress in expanding clean energy, its power system still relies on coal to meet electricity peak loads.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in 2020 to peak China’s greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060, a move celebrated by campaigners. He has also said that the country will begin to “phase down” coal consumption from 2026, without specifying when building new facilities will stop, and pledged to stop building coal-fired power plants abroad.
However, China’s climate targets remain challenged by its inability to quit coal, which is its largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The country is the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal, accounting for half of the global demand. The new facilities approved last year are equivalent to six times the amount of total coal capacity added across the rest of the world.
According to existing data, China slowed down its retirement of coal plants in 2022. The country closed down 4.1 GW of coal-fired capacity last year, which was lower than the 5.2 GW retired in 2021. The revised policies now keep small and inefficient plants online as backup or in regular operation after retrofits, rather than closing them down.
The report includes a set of policy recommendations for the Chinese government. The country should strictly control new coal power capacity and reject or revoke permits for projects that are not necessary for supporting grid stability, as well as accelerate investment in clean power and electricity storage and strengthen energy efficient requirements, the authors wrote.
“If China is going to meet its climate commitments, as we expect, these new coal power plants are going to end up as short-lived and under-utilized malinvestments,” Lauri Myllyvirta, Lead Analyst at CREA, said in a statement. “The most urgent milestone is to scale up investments in clean power generation to cover all of power demand growth.”
The full report can be accessed here.