China’s addition of new coal-fired power plants hurting global efforts to phase out dirty fossil fuel, report shows

·4-min read

China continues to lead the world in setting up new coal plants, commissioning more capacity than the rest of the world combined, which could hinder its aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 and set back global efforts to phase out the dirty fossil fuel, a report found.

The world’s fleet of operating coal-fired plants grew by 18.2 gigawatts in 2021, mostly driven by China, according to the study released by non-profit research organisation Global Energy Monitor (GEM) on Tuesday. China alone added 25.2 gigawatts of new coal capacity in 2021, accounting for over half of the global total of 45GW, and almost offset the 26.8GW of coal plants retired in the rest of the world last year.

On the whole, global coal power capacity under development declined by 13 per cent last year to a record-low 457GW, according to the study. However, China’s share increased by 7 per cent to 251GW.

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“The coal plant pipeline is shrinking, but there is simply no carbon budget left to be building new coal plants. We need to stop, now,” said Flora Champenois, research analyst at San Francisco-based GEM.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this month showed there is no carbon budget left to accommodate new coal plants, and that coal use needs to fall by 75 per cent by 2030 from 2019 levels to limit a global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in line with the Paris Agreement.

To reach net-zero by 2050, the world should have halted new investments in coal power plants after 2021, the International Energy Agency said.

Over 40 countries have pledged to phase out coal and reduce power sector emissions during COP26 in Glasgow last November, the biggest climate change summit of the last five years.

Although China, South Korea, and Japan did not sign up to the pact, they promised to stop funding overseas new coal plants as major financiers of such projects.

The number of countries with new coal plants under consideration has fallen from 41 in January 2021 to 34 this year, the GEM report found.

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Outside China, the global coal fleet shrank for the fourth year in a row, but the addition of new plants in the mainland threatens to offset the global effort. In China, construction started on 33GW of new capacity in 2021, the most since 2016 and almost three times as much as the rest of the world put together.

The country retired only around 2.1GW of coal power capacity in 2021, the least in more than a decade, the GEM study said.

China, the top producer and consumer of coal, is promoting coal-fired power to revive its economy and increase energy security. Last year, more than half of the country’s provinces experienced blackouts and factory shutdowns because of coal shortages.

Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for boosting coal production by 300 million tonnes this year, equal to 7 per cent of last year’s output of 4.1 billion tonnes.

“Unless new coal power projects are controlled much more strictly, worsening overcapacity in coal-fired power could make China’s energy transition harder and more costly,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Helsinki-based climate think tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

For the rest of the world, this means that China’s emissions trajectory over this decade could still be uncertain, with the possibility of both positive and negative surprises, according to Myllyvirta.

“It’s essential for other countries to accelerate their transition away from coal and to put pressure on China’s leadership to pursue an emissions peak early in the decade, and to pin down more specific targets for coal consumption and emissions reductions by 2030.”

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