In April 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a bold commitment to "strictly control coal-fired power generation projects" in China. However, recent data reveals a stark contradiction to this pledge. Government permits for new coal power plants have surged, raising concerns about China's ability to meet its climate targets and the global implications of its actions.
Escalation of Coal Power Projects
Contrary to President Xi's promise, the approval of coal power projects has seen a staggering increase. In the two years following Xi's commitment, the government approved 182 plants, capable of generating 131 gigawatts of coal power—more than doubling China's new coal power capacity.
Impact on Climate Commitments
China, as the world's largest carbon emitter, faces the risk of deviating from its commitments to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. This deviation poses a significant threat to the international goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Clean Energy Dominance
Despite the surge in coal projects, China has made substantial strides in clean technology. Investments in renewable energy accounted for 55 percent of the global total in 2022, solidifying China's position as a frontrunner in the global clean technology race. The country boasts the world's largest fleets of solar and wind power plants, with solar power alone expected to surpass the total installed capacity of the United States in 2023.
Policy U-Turn and Electricity Shortages
China's sudden pivot to coal is perplexing, given its robust clean energy sector. The decision was prompted by electricity shortages in the summer of 2022, triggered by a historic drought and a surge in power demand. However, the root cause lies in the inflexible operation of China's power grid, necessitating excessive power capacity to avert shortages.
Flawed Response and Disregard for Policies
Rather than addressing the inefficiencies in the power system, China responded by ignoring its commitment to "strictly" control new coal power plants. Despite initial inspections and admonishments to the National Energy Administration (NEA), coal power approvals continued to rise. Notably, leaders shifted from discouraging these projects to actively pushing for their acceleration.
Current State and Future Projections
As of now, 209 new coal power plants are either under construction or permitted in China, constituting 72 percent of the world's planned unbuilt capacity. If all these projects materialize, China's coal power capacity will increase by approximately 23 percent by 2030, significantly exceeding climate-aligned development pathways recommended by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and top energy modelers.
Urgent Call for Action
China's deviation from its coal pledge raises alarming concerns about its commitment to international climate action. To avert devastating climate impacts, Beijing must enforce existing policies rigorously, cancel permits granted in breach of those policies, and implement reforms to reduce reliance on coal power. International pressure, particularly from governments at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, is crucial to holding China accountable.
The trajectory of China's coal power expansion contradicts its commendable progress in clean energy. As the global community strives to limit global warming, decisive action is imperative. Governments worldwide, led by influential figures like U.S. President Joe Biden, must call on China to halt new coal projects, unveil a clear timeline for peak power sector emissions, and reaffirm its commitment to a sustainable, low-carbon future. Only through collective efforts can the world ensure that the largest coal power producer aligns with global climate goals.