New coal plants threaten PRC’s climate goals

New coal plants threaten PRC’s climate goals


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to build coal-fired power plants, propelling its post-lockdown economic recovery yet raising questions about the country’s ability to meet its climate goals.

Local planning agencies in China approved 24 new coal-fired power plants in the first half of 2021, Reuters reported. Those approvals came as a United Nations climate panel in early August 2021 said that climate change is close to spiraling out of control. It urged immediate and large-scale action to reduce emissions.

The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council reports that China is not only the world’s biggest energy consumer but also its largest producer of climate-warming greenhouse gases. The Chinese government has pledged to bring carbon emissions to a peak by 2030 and to net zero by 2060, but local provinces in need of energy continue to approve new coal projects.

The central government will not start cutting coal consumption until 2026, although it has pledged to control the number of coal projects coming online. “‘Control’ doesn’t necessarily mean not approving new coal power plants, so we are still seeing new approvals,” Li Danqing, a climate and energy campaigner in Beijing for the environmental group Greenpeace, told Reuters. “The dynamic between the central and local government is still the core problem.”

Chinese residents have been breathing the consequences of this continued coal reliance. A March 2021 article published by the Yale School of the Environment, titled “Despite Pledges to Cut Emissions, China Goes on a Coal Spree,” said air pollution in Beijing recently hit its highest levels since January 2019. Steel, cement and other heavy manufacturing powered by coal boosted China’s carbon dioxide emissions by 4% in the second half of 2020 compared with the year before.

China accounts for 28% of global carbon dioxide emissions and is still building coal-fired power plants at a rate to yield three times the new coal power capacity of all other countries combined, the Yale article stated. (Pictured: China continues to build coal-fired power plants like this one in Huainan and leads the world in carbon dioxide emissions.)

This coal addiction seems at odds with the country’s stated desire to cut emissions. One expert hypothesized that Chinese leaders are betting big on new technology to achieve the 2060 goal of carbon neutrality. Swithin Lui, an analyst at Climate Action Tracker and the NewClimate Institute, said Chinese leaders may be banking on not yet widely deployable carbon capture-and-storage technology, further expansion of renewables, hydropower, hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear power. “There’s no implementation plan for that,” Liu said, according to the Yale article. “It’s basically hedging for the future.”

One of those options is literally drying up, however. Severe droughts caused by climate change are depleting rivers and reservoirs vital for hydropower production in several countries, including Brazil, China and the United States, Reuters reported.

Droughts could threaten international ambitions to fight global warming by hindering the top source of clean energy. Hydropower makes up close to 16% of world electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency.

China is still recovering from a severe drought in the southwest province of Yunnan that threatened the water supply of more than 2 million people.