China has made bold commitments to tackle climate change, aiming to peak emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2060. Despite this, it appears that China’s coal activities are telling a different story. Notably, the country is approving new coal power projects at an alarming rate, equivalent to two plants every week. So, are China’s climate pledges genuine, or are they just a facade? Let’s delve deeper.
In 2021, China’s president, Xi Jinping, pledged to halt the construction of coal-powered plants abroad. However, actions at home seem contradictory. The year 2022 saw China on a coal spree, greenlighting a record-breaking 106 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power – equivalent to 106 large coal power plants. Recent data from the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air suggests that this trend isn’t slowing down. In fact, 2023 may see even more coal plants approved than 2022.
“Sixty per cent of new coal power projects are in grid regions where there’s already an excess of coal-fired power capacity,” the GEM report highlighted. This begs the question: if not for genuine energy needs, why is China still investing so heavily in coal?
China stands as the world’s top producer of renewable energy, harnessing the power of wind, solar, and hydroelectricity. Yet, a closer look reveals that their infrastructure to distribute and store this green energy is lagging. While some regions may need fossil fuels to maintain grid stability, many of the newly approved coal projects are not in these regions.
Cory Combs, an analyst at Trivium China, weighed in: “When we look at it from an energy security perspective, they are putting an extremely high premium on short-term energy security.” He suggests that China is prioritizing immediate energy needs, sometimes even to avoid minor power shortages, over long-term sustainability goals.
As the world’s leading carbon emitter, China contributed almost a third of global greenhouse gases in 2020. With its vast population and increasing number of environmental disasters, China is also vulnerable to the repercussions of the climate crisis. Nevertheless, amid the coal rush, China did make strides in some areas. Their aggressive “war on pollution” has reduced toxic air by a significant 42.3% since 2013. This shows that with determination, China can indeed bring about positive environmental change.
However, the recent coal activities raise concerns about the long-term sustainability of such efforts. Combs stated, “Xi’s credibility is largely tied to the 2030 goal… They are overridden by other interests.”
Experts have repeatedly cautioned China about its coal investments. The recent coal push means China might struggle to reduce its coal-fired power capacity during the coming years. This could result in an increase in emissions, financial losses, and a continued heavy reliance on coal, which is a stark contradiction to its climate commitments.
Flora Champenois, a research analyst at GEM, expressed, “Continuing to permit more coal capacity will either result in massive emissions increases, or plants sitting idle, generating losses, and perpetuating the power system’s dependence on coal.”
China is blatantly lying about its intention to reach climate change goals, what they are telling the rest of the world is laughably untrue. But look for that pattern to be repeated in other countries. Much of the developing world needs more and cheaper energy to help with their economic growth. If the West should happen to reduce its use of coal to the point where it becomes cheap, the developing world will snatch up the coal and use it to grow. It is understandable.