The Surge in Coal Plants in China Hinders Meeting Paris Climate Targets

At a time when every nation is shifting towards a non-fossil fuel economy or at least making efforts to move in that direction, China seems to be taking a 360-degree opposite course. As per a new study, China is ready to build or revive coal that is equal to the entire electricity generating capacity of the EU.

Besides, the Asian Superpower is also encouraging fossil-fuel consumption by financing one-fourth of all proposed coal-based plants, even outside its border.

According to researchers, the surge is going to pose a major threat to the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

The country’s excessive dependence on coal as a means to develop its economy said to have fuelled the “one coal plant a week” set up a programme between 2006 and 2015.

However, the surge also resulted in many negative consequences, including severe air pollution in many of its cities that eventually led to huge overcapacity. The majority of these coal-based plants were found to be functional only 50% of the time.

While making an attempt to limit the growth, the Chinese national government tried to restrain new-build coal projects in 2015. However, the move got badly misfired as it kept on giving the provincial governments full freedom to issue new coal plants permits.

As a result, the local authorities permitted up to five times more new plants compared to any other period.

As per Ted Nace, from coal researchers Global Energy Monitor, it seemed like a “snake swallowing a goat.”

“This goat that the snake swallowed is still moving through the snake, and it’s coming out in the form of another 20% in the Chinese coal fleet on top of a fleet that was already over-built,” Mr Nace added.

According to the researchers, starting from 2018 to June 2019, countries outside of China reduced their capacity of coal power by 8.1 gigawatts (GW). However, China added 43GW, which is sufficient to power around 31 million homes during the same period.

Currently, the amount of coal power which is under construction or under suspension and those likely to be revived is about 147.7GW. It is equivalent to an amount that is similar to the total coal generating capacity of the EU (150GW), the authors say.

Therefore, China is constructing about 50% more coal plants when compared to the rest of the world and combining those which are under construction in all other countries.

In fact, the Asian country is well on course to exceed 1,100GW of coal by the next year.

Earlier the national government signalled that in order to lessen its reliance on coal for the energy production of the country, it is making some headway reducing coal’s share of total energy from 68% in 2012 to 59% in 2018.

However, figures show that the absolute coal consumption of the country has steadily increased in line with overall energy demand despite the share of coal going down.

What is more concerning for the researchers is the growing lobbies of coal and electricity industry groups within China that are pushing for an even bigger surge in the total coal power capacity of the country.

“The thing we are super worried about is that industry has actually organized to keep the whole thing going,” said Ted Nace.

“There are three different powerful trade groups, proposing to increase the coal fleet by 40%. This is sheer madness at this point.”

China also seems to be busy financing coal projects even outside the country, funding more than one-fourth of all proposed coal plants outside its borders in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and South Africa.

As per the observers outside of China, the authorities are locking in a form of power generation that just doesn’t make sense economically by building or permitting these plants.

Mark Lewis, head of climate change investment research, BNP Paribas Asset Management, said: “The economics will not be borne out.”

“I would argue that almost all this new capacity that’s being added will never make the economic return on which they have been promised. Those assets that are coming online now will have to be written down; they will be stranded assets essentially.”

Now the bigger ask is in what way the new coal plants will affect the global ability to reach the targets spelled out in the Paris climate agreement.

According to the researchers, the Paris Agreement requires China to reduce its coal power capacity by over 40% from current levels to reach the reductions necessary to restrict global warming well below 2C by 2030.

“China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris Agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet,” said co-author Christine Shearer of Global Energy Monitor.

“Instead of expanding further, China needs to make significant reductions to its coal fleet over the coming decade.”

Originally known as Coal Swarm, the Global Energy Monitor has received funding from various notable environmental groups, including the US National Resources Defence Council, ClimateWorks Foundation, the European Climate Foundation, the Rockefeller Family fund, among others.

Arindom Ghosh

A professional writer, blogger, copywriter, and a member of the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, New York. He has been part of many reputed domestic and global online magazines and publications. An avid reader and a nature lover by heart, when he is not working, he is probably exploring the secrets of life.