China, the world’s biggest polluter, approves most coal-fired power plants in seven years


China last year approved the biggest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015, according to a new report, showing how the world’s largest emitter still depends on a fossil fuel that scientists say needs to be quickly removed to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. atmosphere.

It also underscores how China disagrees with the global move away from greenhouse gas-emitting forms of energy – and with its own pledges to cut emissions.

The rush to build new coal projects across the country has meant authorities have granted permits for 106 gigawatts of capacity at 82 sites in 2022, the highest number in seven years and four times higher than in 2021.

That’s according to a new report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a Finland-based nongovernmental organization, and the Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit that tracks fuels infrastructure. fossils.

“The speed at which projects have progressed from permits to construction in 2022 has been extraordinary, with many projects seeing the light of day, obtaining permits, obtaining financing and starting seemingly in a matter of months,” said Flora Champenois, research analyst at GEM.

“China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal-fired power development,” she said.

With coal boom, China puts energy security and growth ahead of climate

Not all of these projects will necessarily materialize. But local governments appear to be moving as quickly as possible, with 50 gigawatts of construction currently underway.

Already responsible for about half of the world’s coal production and consumption, the new installations in China are equivalent to about six times the total coal capacity added in the rest of the world.

Becoming the main obstacle to a global coal phase-out trend runs counter to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to make China a climate leader. In 2020, he pledged to peak the country’s carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, a move hailed as a breakthrough by environmentalists who hoped Xi would play a bigger role. active in limiting global warming.

As the Trump administration finalized the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, some wondered if Beijing, not Washington, could lead a global transition to renewable energy sources.

Modeling suggests that achieving the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels is only possible if adoption green energy occurs much faster and greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere.

China has made progress in enabling a faster global energy transition. He pledged to stop building coal-fired power plants overseas. Massive installations of wind turbines and solar panels – worth 125 gigawatts last year – as well as the growing adoption of electric vehicles have reinforced the feeling that Beijing is committed to adopting carbon-reducing technologies. .

But undermining China’s progress toward a low-carbon economy is its failure to ditch coal, which is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Xi said the country would start “gradually reducing” coal consumption from 2026, but he did not say when new construction would stop.

As China Extracts More and More Coal, Levels of a More Potent Greenhouse Gas Are Soaring

Preliminary data suggests China’s carbon dioxide output rose 1.3% last year from 2021, reversing what had been the longest drop in emissions in recent history as lockdowns Sporadic coronavirus outbreaks slowed economic activity for about a year through the summer of 2022, according to an analysis by CREA released earlier this month.

The rise was mainly due to a record 3.3% increase in coal consumption and came even as the production of steel and cement – ​​the two largest users of fossil fuels outside of electricity production. electricity – dropped significantly. (CREA senior analyst Lauri Myllyvirta isn’t sure the numbers add up, as the industry-specific numbers suggested to him that less coal was used than expected. That uncertainty is in itself troubling. , did he declare.)

Coordinating with China on climate has proven difficult for the United States and European countries, as negotiations are regularly interrupted by geopolitics. Beijing suspended talks in August after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the self-governing island China claims as its own. Communication resumed three months later after a face-to-face meeting between President Biden and Xi in November.

But the main obstacles preventing China from moving more quickly towards the peak of its carbon dioxide emissions are national in nature. Repeated power shortages and turmoil in global energy markets caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have heightened the Chinese government’s long-standing concerns about the need for energy sources safe and reliable.

And then there’s the problem of generating enough electricity to meet the growing demands of 1.4 billion people who, on average, only use about 40% of what a US resident uses.

Experts say China’s leaders view coal as essential to ensuring the lights stay on and factories keep humming even when energy systems are unexpectedly disrupted, as happened in August when a unprecedented heat wave caused hydropower shortages.

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Building power plants is also a way for local governments to stimulate the economy in the short term by creating jobs and construction contracts, although the projects are unlikely to bring in money in the long term.

Officials sometimes defend the decision to build new power plants as a necessary evil to better distribute energy production, which does not necessarily mean that the electricity sector will use more coal or emit more carbon dioxide overall.

Even if this is true, building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants will make it harder and more expensive to meet China’s climate goals as the coal lobby’s interest in protecting its investments grows, they noted. the authors of the report.

“The worst-case scenario is that pressure to use newly built coal-fired power plants…leads to a moderation in clean energy generation in China,” they wrote. “It could mean a significant increase in China’s CO2 emissions this decade, undermining the global climate effort, and could even endanger China’s climate commitments.”

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