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China’s coal plant approvals highest in seven years, new study shows

Coal is the fossil fuel most responsible for the climate crisis. PHOTO/FILE


Despite warnings from scientists that the world must rapidly cut coal use in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, China approved more new coal plants in 2022 than at any point in the last seven years.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Global Energy Monitor (GEM) released Monday, which found that China had approved new plants at a rate of two per week for a total of 106 gigawatts (GW) for the year.

“The speed at which projects progressed through permitting to construction in 2022 was extraordinary, with many projects sprouting up, gaining permits, obtaining financing and breaking ground apparently in a matter of months,” GEM research analyst Flora Champenois said, as The Washington Post reported. “China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development.”

However, the authors stress that many projects were being built in regions that already had a clear capacity surplus and power supply problems would be better addressed by improving grid reliability and efficiency. Bloomberg, EcoWatch and the South China Morning Post are among other outlets covering the story. Bloomberg also reports on “informal signs” that China has eased its ban on coal imports from Australia.

Coal is the fossil fuel most responsible for the climate crisis, and Climate Analytics has found that all coal plants must be phased out entirely by 2040 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Further, coal use must fall by 80 percent of 2010 levels by the end of this decade.

Yet coal is China’s major stumbling block on the road to its energy transition. While the country is installing renewable energy at impressive speeds — it broke a record for new solar capacity added last year — it struggles to quit coal. It broke a record for coal outputs in 2022 as well. And the groundwork laid in new projects is not promising.

In 2022, China broke ground on 50 GW worth of coal power, which is more than 50 percent more than in 2021 and six times more than the rest of the globe, the report found. The 106 GW in permitted coal power was more than four times the 23 GW approved in 2021.

The surge in coal construction is likely a response to the global energy crisis prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and domestic energy shortages, according to The Washington Post. In September of 2021, China experienced blackouts because of a lack of coal supply, according to Reuters.

However, some of China’s energy woes are driven by the climate crisis. For example, a drought in 2022 reduced hydropower while more people are turning to air conditioning to make it through more extreme heat waves, according to Reuters and the report. In this context, coal may be a short-term fix but will ultimately make the problem worse.

China has pledged to start reducing coal consumption from 2026, as well as to hit peak emissions before 2030 and reach net zero by 2060, according to The Washington Post.

The report authors said that coal use and electricity emissions might not increase in China because of the newly planned plants if renewable energy capacity keeps increasing and energy demand declines.

But the new plants could make it more difficult for China to meet its climate goals, since doing so would require some of the new plants to essentially become stranded assets, which would anger their owners.

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