China struggles to end coal habit despite climate pledges

Coal production rises as nuclear plans stall, bottlenecks and subsidy backlogs hinder Beijing’s shift to renewables.

Coal China
A migrant worker steps out of his accommodation in an area next to a coal-fired power plant in Beijing [File: Damir Sagolj/Reuters]

China’s appetite for coal is rising again despite a surge of investment in alternative energies, limits on coal use, and the establishment of “no-coal zones” throughout the country designed to help it meet climate pledges.

“China embarked on an energy transformation in terms of cutting coal and developing renewables, but we are now facing difficulties on both fronts,” Li Shuo, senior climate adviser with Greenpeace, told the Reuters news agency.

Though some studies have suggested China‘s total climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions peaked at 9.53 gigatonnes in 2013, well ahead of its official target of “around 2030”, the environmental group said they could reach a new high this year or next.

Coal production has risen 5.1 percent in the first three-quarters of this year to 2.59 billion tonnes.

When US President Donald Trump said he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord last year, China reaffirmed its commitments to tackle its use of coal, by far its biggest source of carbon emissions.

The country has made progress in cutting the share of coal in total energy use, with the figure expected to drop to 58 percent by 2020, down more than 10 percentage points in a decade.

It has also met a 2020 target to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) it emits per unit of growth. But the absolute volumes of both coal and CO2 remain by far the world’s highest, and are still set to rise.

Pressure on coal

Big coal-producing regions such as Inner Mongolia and Shanxi have been under pressure to cap capacity, with the state promising to shut 500 million tonnes of annual production between 2016 and 2020, and banning the import and use of lower-quality coal.

But despite closing uneconomical pits, official annual production capability was 3.49 billion tonnes at the end of June, up from 3.41 billion tonnes a year earlier, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said this month. Another 976 million tonnes were under construction.

Beijing’s “decarbonisation” plans have been hit by grid bottlenecks and subsidy backlogs that have hindered efforts to maximise solar and wind generation.

Solar capacity grew by a record 53 gigawatts (GW) in 2017, but additions are capped at 30GW this year.

They have also been hurt by a slowdown in the construction of nuclear reactors, one of the few alternative power sources able to take on the “baseload” generation role currently played by traditional coal-fired plants.

‘Illusion of decarbonisation’

No new commercial reactors have been approved in nearly three years and local authorities have had little choice but to turn to coal to provide the baseload.

China’s mainly coal-fired thermal power capacity rose 58GW from the end of 2016 to the end of August this year, more than half of all new domestic capacity over the period and almost enough to power Australia, NEA data showed.

“With renewables ramping up so quickly, it has given the illusion of decarbonisation, but China is falling into the same trap that Germany has fallen into – deploying lots of renewables that have to be backed up with lots of coal-fired power plants,” said Li Ning, nuclear scientist and dean of the College of Energy at Xiamen University.

China pledged to launch another six to eight reactor projects this year, but Li said it was unlikely it would get around to making the required approvals until next year.

“If nuclear can’t keep up, then it is coal,” he said.

Source: Reuters