China can hit its stated target of carbon neutrality by 2060 if it expedites the closure of 186 of its most underperforming coal plants, gradually reduces the capacity of those that remain, and ceases to build any new ones, a new study concludes. But a powerful coal lobby is attempting to stand in the way.
Of China’s 1,037 active coal plants, 186 “are—from a technical, economic, and environmental perspective—performing poorly and are ‘particularly suitable’ for fast-track retirement,” reports Carbon Brief, citing the new research just published in the journal Nature Communications. According to the study authors, shutting down these facilities “could allow other existing plants to reach a minimum lifetime of 20 or 30 years—with gradually reduced operational capacity—under scenarios consistent with the 1.5°C or ‘well-below’ 2°C temperature goals of the Paris Agreement, respectively.”
Should China embrace such a phaseout plan—to the point of permitting no new builds—the country could be coal-free by 2045 under the 1.5°C pathway, or 10 years after that under the 2°C pathway.
That undertaking would be no small effort. “China has the world’s largest coal fleet and is home to the heaviest concentration of coal plants globally,” notes Carbon Brief. “Coal-fired capacity currently stands at around 1,050 GW—half the global total—with another 250 GW under development.”
With so much of his country’s power supply still dependent on the fossil, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping would have to draw up a plan for shuttering the nation’s coal plants to meet his goal of an “ecological civilization”, but has yet to do so, even as the vision for a “beautiful” and carbon-neutral China he expressed last September is already being factored into the blueprints for many other sectors.
The inertia likely owes in part to the country’s coal lobby. Citing its own report from last year, Carbon Brief writes that “major Chinese power companies were lobbying for targets that would allow ‘hundreds’ of new coal-fired power stations to be built.” And such efforts have borne fruit: citing another study from 2020, Carbon Brief says that “China approved 20 GW of installed coal power capacity between January and June in 2020—a higher volume than the annual installed capacity of any of the previous four years.”
Study lead author Ryna Yiyun Cui, co-director of the China program at the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, stressed that such a buildout is emphatically not the way to a carbon-neutral China. “The sooner [a] ‘no-new-coal strategy’ is implemented, the more flexible the phaseout strategy can be for existing plants,” she told Carbon Brief.
Cui suggested, however, that Xi could soon at least partially move on coal. “Out of all the projects under development, I think a large portion is unlikely to proceed, while about 90 GW already under construction are more likely to be implemented,” she said.
While study co-author Jiahai Yuan likewise stressed the need to leave coal in the dust, the professor at North China Electric Power University’s School of Economics and Management flagged some significant challenges along the way. “As coal power is the most important ‘pillar’ source to China’s electric power system, its exit poses great challenges for electric power safety,” he said. “How to phase out coal power [in an] orderly [manner] while ensuring the reliability of the electric power system is the key topic China needs to consider carefully.”
Sketching out for Carbon Brief just what such an orderly exit from coal would look like, Yuan said that whereas “the phaseout of coal power should be prioritized in some areas of southeastern and central China, where renewable energy is abundant,” coal plants in the northwestern and eastern parts of the country would likely be the last out the door, thanks to “extensive inventories of coal-fired units and the ‘instability and uncertainty’ of the wind power and solar output there.”
Further obstacles to ending the ongoing buildout of coal in China are the ever-accelerating demand for electricity, the still guaranteed return on investments in the climate-wrecking fuel and, at least for the time being, a policy gap, Carbon Brief notes.
“It is not yet clear what rewards would be given to those making the low-carbon transformation, or what restrictions high-carbon businesses would face—though such a reward and punishment system is currently being drawn up,” explained Hong Miao, sustainable investment program director and senior energy expert at the World Resources Institute.
Likewise still hazy: what the end of coal in China would mean for grid stability, and how the country can navigate environmental justice issues during the phaseout. Carbon Brief notes that coal has been a significant engine of local economic growth and job creation in a number of Chinese provinces for several decades.