By Michael Lelyveld
Economic and political pressures are pushing China to build more unnecessary coal-fired power plants, putting global climate change targets at risk, energy experts and recent studies suggest.
China’s continuing construction of coal plants has raised alarms among environmental research groups as international concerns over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grow.
In its annual report released last month, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) urged China to “ban all new coal-fired power plants” as part of an accelerated phase-out of coal power by the largest economies in the world.
At the current pace of GHG emissions and national pledges, the world will be unable to keep global warming below the limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) set by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UNEP report said.
Without more drastic and immediate action, temperatures could climb by up to 3.9 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, the “Emissions Gap Report” warned.
U.N. scientists said the target rate for emissions reductions must more than double to 7.6 percent annually for the next decade to keep global warming within bounds.
Yet, China has continued to push the limits with construction of new coal-fired plants.
Last month, researchers at the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) released a report on China’s continuing construction, concluding that the country has recently added five times as much coal-fired generating capacity as the reductions in the rest of the world.
While the pace of new permitting by the central government has slowed, projects that were previously suspended are now moving ahead, the environmental group said.
China is still in the throes of a building boom that started in 2014 when the government shifted project approval authority from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top planning agency, to the provinces as a way to cut red tape and spur the economy.
The decision led to a wave of ill-considered projects, which have only been partially postponed or restrained.
GEM found that in the 18 months since the start of 2018, China increased the generating capacity of its coal-fired fleet by 42.9 gigawatts (GW), while the rest of the world cut capacity by 8.1 GW.
The report estimated that 147.7 GW of new coal capacity is under active consideration or likely to be revived from suspension status. The total is nearly equal to all the coal- fired generating capacity of the European Union, it said.
Development interests are pushing to raise the government’s cap on coal-fired capacity from the 1,100-GW ceiling, set by 13th Five-Year Plan through 2020, to as much as 1,400 GW, GEM said.
Although the projects provide employment, they are otherwise seen as unprofitable and unneeded, since utilization of existing plants has hovered around 50 percent.
The huge volume of new plants on the drawing board will tip the global balance toward an increase in coal-fired power, GEM estimated.
“In other words, even if the rest of the world phased out all coal power use by 2035, China’s coal power generation alone would greatly exceed the global limits determined by the IPCC for coal power use,” the report said.
‘Far more urgent things’
China’s government has not responded to criticism of its new coal plants.
But one day after release of the UNEP report, an environmental official defended China’s record on reducing the amount of carbon used per unit of gross domestic product.
Zhao Yingmin, a vice-minister for ecology and environment, told reporters in Beijing that the country had already met its commitment to cut carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, posting a 45.8-percent reduction in 2018, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China first announced the intensity target in 2009, but its total carbon emissions have continued to rise as a result of a decade of growth in GDP.
Estimates of China’s new plant problem and its contribution to climate change vary, but analysts agree that halting construction has become a lower priority on the country’s list of troubles, including the slide in economic growth, trade war tensions, Hong Kong democracy demonstrations and pressures over Uyghur suppression in Xinjiang.
“The central government has far more urgent things to worry about just now than energy, environment and climate change,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at University of Singapore.
“The earlier restrictions may be being relaxed in order to support employment and investment,” Andrews-Speed said.
As in earlier reports, GEM makes the case against China’s new coal plants on both environmental and economic grounds, arguing that the projects will not return their investments.
In order to meet the two-degree Celsius target, new coal plants will have to be retired after 21 years or sooner, compared with the current global average of 38 years, the group said.
The monitor’s conclusions on China’s priorities appear to be consistent with a Reuters report in August that found a major increase in approvals for new coal mines, based on documents from the National Energy Administration (NEA).
In the first half of the year, new production capacity approvals totaled 141 million metric tons, compared with just 25 million tons for all of last year, Reuters said.
On Dec. 2, another Reuters report indicated that the pace of new projects has continued unabated.
In the first three quarters, regulators approved 40 new coal mines with annual capacity of nearly 200 million tons.
China has built 42.9 GW of new coal-fired generating capacity since the start of last year with 121 GW under construction, compared with 35 GW added in 2017 and 38 GW in 2016, the report said.
In its recent annual World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) offered a slightly less critical view of China’s new coal plant activity and its effect.
“Coal accounts for two-thirds of China’s electricity supply today, but efforts are underway to limit its growth to address pollution concerns and limit CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions,” said the Paris-based IEA.
“Even with over 60 GW under construction at the start of 2019, coal-fired capacity and generation are set to plateau,” it said.
World’s largest electricity user
China is already the world’s largest electricity user with consumption projected to rise by over 70 percent by 2040, accounting for 40 percent of global demand growth, the IEA said.
Data tables with the 810-page IEA report indicate that China’s coal-fired generation will peak around 2030 after rising by 9.2 percent from 2018. But even in 2040, coal will provide 41.2 percent of China’s power compared with 66.2 percent last year.
China’s CO2 emissions from coal are set to peak sometime after 2025, but they remain 46.6 percent of global coal emissions in 2040. China’s total energy-related CO2 is projected to be 25.9 percent of world emissions by then.
Energy-related CO2 emissions rose in both China and the United States last year, magnifying the task of global reductions. The United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
In China, other recent indications of a lower priority for emissions reductions include a slowdown in coal-to-gas conversions for winter heating and eased limits on steel output.
Last month, Xinhua reported that China’s apparent demand for crude steel this year will top 930 million metric tons, citing a forecast by industry information provider Lange Steel (www.LangeSteel.com).
The record level of steel consumption suggests that the government has relied more heavily on energy-intensive infrastructure spending to boost the economy than it has previously disclosed.
The effects on China’s smog problem appear to be mixed, according to official reports.
The Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported that air quality worsened in its October survey of 337 monitored cities with a 2.1-percent decline in the share of “good air quality days” from a year earlier, although the average density of fine particulates known as PM2.5 also fell.
The number of good air quality days dropped in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region in both October and the 10-month period this year, the ministry said.