China has approved a surge in coal power this year, prioritising energy supplies over its pledge to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, according to a report by Greenpeace.
The world’s second-largest economy is also its biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases driving climate change. China’s emissions pledges are seen as essential to keeping global temperature rises well below 2 degrees Celsius.
The jump in approvals for coal-fired power plants, however, has fuelled concerns that China will backtrack on its goals for its emissions to peak between 2026 and 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2060.
Local governments in energy-hungry Chinese provinces approved at least 20.45 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power in the first three months of 2023, Greenpeace said on Monday.
That is more than double the 8.63GW Greenpeace reported for the same period last year and greater than the 18.55GW that got the green light for the whole of 2021.
China relied on coal for nearly 60 percent of its electricity last year.
The push for more coal plants is risking “climate disasters … and locking us into a high-carbon pathway”, Greenpeace campaigner Xie Wenwen said.
“The 2022 coal boom has clearly continued into this year,” Xie said.
A study released in February by the Global Energy Monitor said China last year approved the largest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015.
Most of the new coal projects approved in the January-March period this year were in provinces that have suffered punishing power shortages due to record heatwaves in the past two years, Greenpeace said.
Several others were in southwestern China, where a record drought last year slashed hydropower output and forced factories to shut down.
It was unclear how many of the coal-powered plants approved this year will begin construction.
Greenpeace analysts warned that investing in more fossil fuel plants to prepare for a spike in air conditioning will create a vicious cycle: Increased greenhouse gas emissions from the coal plants will accelerate climate change, resulting in more frequent extreme weather such as heatwaves and leading to increased energy demand.
“China’s power sector can still peak emissions by 2025,” Xie said but added that emissions released today will linger in the atmosphere for decades.
China is also the world’s largest and fastest-growing producer of renewable energy.
Wind, solar, hydro and nuclear sources are expected to supply a third of its electricity demand by 2025, up from 28.8 per cent in 2020, according to estimates by the National Energy Administration.
But Greenpeace said the rise in approvals for coal power projects shows how the need for short-term economic growth is diverting investment away from renewable energy projects, such as grid upgrades that can supply surplus wind and solar power to regions that need it.
China’s coal plants have an average lifespan of about 40 to 50 years and will be operating at minimum capacity and at a loss if the country delivers on its emissions pledge, according to the report.
The China Electricity Council said more than half of the country’s large coal-fired power companies suffered losses in the first half of 2022.