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China is Building Coal-Fired Power Plants at an Alarming Rate

As the number one importer of both crude oil and coal, China is the largest consumer of energy and CO2 producer in the world. Approximately one-third of all CO2 emissions across the globe (30.7% in 2022) were generated by China. With 1,142 coal-fired power plants in operation as of July 2023, mainland China currently has a far greater number of coal-fired plants than any other country. India comes in a distant second with 282 coal-fired plants, and the third with 210 plants. Approximately 170 of the remaining coal-fired plants in the U.S. are scheduled to be de-commissioned by 2030, and there are no plans to build any new coal-fired plants in the U.S.  Meanwhile China is adding to its inventory of coal-fired power plants at a record rate.  [See e.g., “Producers and Contractors are Drawing Criticism over the Carbon Footprint of Concrete”, posted 6/21/23]. 

During the first six months of 2023, China issued permits for the construction of approximately 50 new coal-fired power plants, an average of two per week. China currently has more than 300 coal-fired plants that are either under construction, permitted, or awaiting permitting. If all 300 plants are constructed, China’s inventory of coal-fired power plants will increase by more than 25%. Currently, China has six times more coal-fired power plants under construction than the rest of the World combined. Such rapid growth, prompted a research analyst at the Global Energy Monitor, - Flora Champenois – to comment “[e]verybody else is moving away from coal and China seems to be stepping on the gas”.

Officials within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offer a variety of reasons for the rapid reliance upon coal-fired power plants. Some CCP members contend recent heat waves have increased the demand for air conditioning leading to problems with the power grid. Other CCP members claim extended drought conditions have led rivers to dry up – including parts of the Yangtze – thereby decreasing the availability of hydropower. Still other CCP members blame the war in Ukraine for causing an increase in the price of liquified natural gas, and thus a shift towards coal. Finally, CCP officials claim the new coal-fired plants will simply serve as backup support for the undependable renewable sources of energy and or during periods of intense electricity demand. Whatever the justification, such rapid growth appears to contradict the pledge made by President Xi Jinping in 2020 that China will “aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”.

Given that China is also currently leading the world in the construction of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, China’s increased reliance upon coal contradicts the justifications offered by the CCP. Critics point out that most of the new coal-fired power plants are being constructed in locations that fail to support the justifications offered by the CCP, such as no reported instability of the grid or unreliability of renewable energy sources. Other critics indicate that the new coal-fired plants are being constructed in locations that are already powered almost entirely by coal as opposed to supposed unreliable renewable energy sources.  Such contradictions by the CCP have caused the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air – Lauri Myllyvirta – to question whether China intends, or even can comply with its commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Whatever stance is taken, while the world is rapidly decreasing reliance upon coal-fired power plants, China is moving even faster in the opposite direction, drastically increasing reliance upon both coal and CO2 emissions.

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"China is the world's biggest emitter of fossil fuels and has pledged for its emissions to peak by 2030. But there are questions over how high that peak will get and how soon that peak will come...... The International Energy Agency recently reaffirmed there must be "no new development of unabated coal-fired power plants" to keep temperatures less than 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change. It's too early to know how much the plants will run and how they will impact China's emissions, says Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and one of the report's co-authors. "The challenge though is going to be that all of these power plants have owners that are interested in making as much money as possible out of running them," he says.


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