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Government-Backed Report Urges China to Stop Building Coal Plants, Use Existing Ones Less

A new report co-authored by China’s government-backed National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) says phasing out construction of all new coal-fired generating stations is the most economically achievable way to hit the country’s long-term climate targets.

Published Monday, the report by NDRC researchers and the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability concludes China can phase out coal and keep its greenhouse gas emissions consistent with a mid-century target of 1.5°C for average global warming, “but only if it embarks on a ‘structured and sustainable’ closure strategy to minimize the economic impact,” Reuters reports.

“China’s energy strategy over the next decade is under close scrutiny as it aims to bring climate warming carbon emissions to a peak by 2030 and fulfill a pledge made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement,” the news agency notes. “But with economic growth at its slowest pace in nearly 30 years, Beijing has continued to approve new coal-fired plants, raising fears the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gas is backtracking on its commitments.” That’s on top of the more than 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity it already has in place, representing about 60% of its installed generation.

There is also concern that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a mammoth, US$12-trillion infrastructure plan spanning as many as 126 countries, could drive global demand for coal.

This week’s report “evaluated more than 1,000 existing coal-fired power plants,” concluding that China “must first end new construction and then rapidly close older and inefficient plants,” Reuters writes. “As much as 112 gigawatts does not meet environmental standards and could be shut down immediately, it said.” The researchers also suggested that China shift the role of coal plants in its electricity system, using it to supply “peak load” power when demand is highest in a way that would reduce their total operating hours. 

Reuters says China has built 42.9 GW of new coal capacity since the beginning of 2018, with another 121 GW under construction, while simultaneously pledging the “highest possible ambition” in its climate commitments for the next decade. Research by the country’s State Grid Corporation indicates a need for 1,250 to 1,400 GW of coal-fired capacity to keep electricity supplies stable over the longer term.

But the latest report “shows that a sustainable coal power phaseout in China is possible, through rapid retirements of the low-hanging fruit and gradually reduced operating hours of the remaining plants,” said Jiang Kejun, a research professor at the government-backed Energy Research Institute. “Well-designed policies can help lower the cost of coal power deep decarbonization, contribute to a sustainable transition of existing coal plants, and reduce the potential impact on employment.”