China’s growing coal consumption puts global climate action efforts in jeopardy

Reduction in coal consumption is a priority area and is essential to meet global emission targets. Ahead of the global climate talks in Dubai, China however appears to have not just failed to cut the coal use but rather ended up burning it more. With over 50 percent share in global use, China is the biggest coal consumer. Against this backdrop, Beijing’s increasing reliance on fossil fuel is likely to be detrimental to climate action, especially, when climate scientists have sought phasing out coal at a seven times faster rate.[1]

China’s growing reliance on coal adds to the carbon emissions, which is likely to be a concern at the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations—COP28 in Dubai. At the climate negotiations in Glasgow in April 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “strictly control” coal-fired power generation projects in the country.[2] However, the reality is quite the opposite as there has been a sharp increase in the number of coal-fired power plants and the production capacity.

China is building coal-fired thermal power stations with a capacity of 243 gigawatts, which is enough to power the entire Germany.[3] The planned capacity augmentations is 392 gigawatts, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a Finland-based independent research institute. It said China defied the domestic and global emission targets by massive coal-fired power generation. “The first half of 2023 saw 52 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power permitted, maintaining the previous rhythm of permitting two coal power plants per week,” it said.[4]  

Global Energy Monitor (GEM) said China’s pre-construction and construction capacity increased by 38 percent from 2021 to 2022 while the capacity in the rest of the world decreased by 20 percent.[5] While the world has been trying not to build new coal projects, China is coal power spree, which makes its energy transition and climate commitments more complicated and costly, said Flora Champenois, research analyst at the GEM. “Continuing to permit more coal capacity will either result in massive emissions increases, or plants sitting idle, generating losses, and perpetuating the power system’s dependence on coal,” she said. “China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development.” [6][7][8]         

In its latest report on coal consumption, the GEM said the new coal-fired plants are leading to increased carbon emissions, which put China’s climate commitments in danger. “Hundreds of brand-new coal power plants will make meeting China’s climate commitments more complicated and costly.

China’s proposed coal expansion means the Paris climate goals are becoming ever more elusive,” reads the report.[9] China accounts for 30 percent of total emissions, which is more than the US, European Union and India combined. 

These findings are concerning in the wake of COP28 in Dubai is going to have the first global stock-taking of climate action on Paris Agreement goals.[10] China has been mining coal in the country at a greater scale to enhance domestic output so as to meet energy requirements. This however has put its climate pledges in jeopardy. Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the CREA, said “The reported increases in energy consumption and CO2 emissions mean that China has fallen significantly behind on its climate targets for 2025.”[11]

The per capita emission in China has increased by 30 percent during 2015-2022 while it registered a year-on-year increase of 4.4 percent in the past year.[12][13] According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the coal demand in China increased by 4.6 percent to an all-time high 4,519 million tonnes in 2022 while it is expected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2023.[14] “China will continue to account for more than half of the world’s coal use, with the power sector alone consuming one-third,” it said.

Environmentalists and climate experts find Beijing’s growing dependency on coal as a major impediment to reducing global carbon emissions. Michael Davidson, an assistant professor at the University of California, slammed China for prioritising energy security over climate commitments. “The costs of China’s commitment to coal could be very steep as the planet tries to stave off the worst effects of climate change,” he said.[15] Myllyvirta said delays by China in reining in emissions “could single-handedly derail the global climate effort.”[16]

















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