Jan 07, 2020 07:56 PM

To Hit Climate Targets, China Shouldn’t Build New Coal Power Plants: Report

China should not build any new coal-fired power plants as part of efforts to meet its long-term climate pledges with relatively small economic impact, according to a new study.

Rapidly shuttering inefficient plants and using coal primarily as a supplementary energy source would also help achieve phaseout of coal by 2050, in line with China’s goals under the Paris Agreement, the study said. That agreement aims to keep global heating well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and shoot for a target of 1.5 C.

China’s reliance on coal is back in the spotlight at the start of a crucial decade for mitigating climate change and adapting to its potentially catastrophic effects. The country is both the world’s largest coal user, with total coal power generation capacity estimated at 1,100 gigawatts by 2020, and the biggest emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

A phaseout of the nation’s coal-fired plants and corresponding embrace of low-carbon power sources are therefore considered critical for holding global temperature rises below 1.5 C. Although China is on track to meet its 2030 Paris commitments early, an ongoing economic slowdown has prompted the government to green-light new coal plants, an expansion that has sparked fears the country may almost single-handedly carry the world beyond the 2 C limit.

coal chart

The report was published Monday and co-authored by the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, the Energy Research Institute (ERI) of the National Development and Reform Commission, and North China Electric Power University. It claims to lay out ambitious, but feasible, ways of weaning China off coal without breaking the bank. Researchers analyzed more than 1,000 Chinese coal plants, comprising around 3,000 individual units, and assigned each of them a weighted score based on their technical attributes, profitability, and environmental impact. They then used these scores to determine which plants are “low-hanging fruit” for rapid closure.

Aside from abandoning all planned new plants, researchers also identified a number of others accounting for up to 112 GW of capacity — around one-tenth of China’s total coal-fired power generation capacity — that could be rapidly retired in the short term due to factors like old age, inefficiency, or failure to meet environmental standards. Many such plants are located in heavily industrial areas like Hebei province, Shanxi province, and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

The phaseout could also require a sea change in the way China approaches coal use, researchers said. Currently, coal supplies around 60% of the country’s energy and is a key way of meeting the electricity grid’s base load — that is, the minimum level of power demand over a set period of time. Under one suggested policy scenario, the black rock could play a reduced role as a supplement to cleaner forms of energy during times of increased demand, a transition that could be hastened by curtailing the lifespans of existing plants and reducing their operating hours.

While the researchers say their roadmap softens the economic impact of a rapid coal phase-out, it does not completely absolve China of economic stress. Ultimately, the effects will depend on the policy approach and whether China aims for a 2C or 1.5C target. Although that half-degree difference may appear marginal, scientists have warned that a 2 C warmer world would have significantly more dangerous repercussions for ecosystems, economies, and societies.

A policy approach that emphasizes closing operational plants before the end of their planned lifetimes could incur losses anywhere between 244 billion yuan and 889 billion yuan, the report said. Meanwhile, an approach that generally allows coal plants to complete their planned lifetimes but generate gradually less power as they age could result in losses of between 357 billion yuan and 451 billion yuan.

Jiang Kejun, a senior researcher at the ERI and the report’s co-lead author, said the study was meaningful for laying out a framework to the “unprecedented challenge” of phasing out coal use in China. “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,” he said.

The report comes a month after international climate negotiations in Madrid failed to secure stronger cuts to carbon emissions, despite indications that current pledges will warm the planet by more than 3 C by the end of the century. Environmental campaigners at the talks lambasted countries for their perceived reluctance to embrace more ambitious targets.

Yuan Jiahai, a professor at North China Electric Power University and the report’s co-author, said the research showed “that it is possible, even in the most challenging country, to achieve a high-ambition energy transition consistent with the global climate goals.”

But while the study successfully showed that cutting China’s coal addiction is both feasible and relatively painless, “the bad news is that, in reality, we’re still very far from even accomplishing the modest first step — that is, stopping the construction of new coal plants,” Li Shuo, a policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia, told Caixin Global. “Chinese energy planners urgently need to prevent the problem from growing even bigger. This new decade can hardly afford any new coal.”

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh ( and editor Joshua Dummer (

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