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Leon Kaye headshot

China Accused of Rapidly Building Coal Plants, Despite Climate Promises

By Leon Kaye

China has long held the mantle as the world’s manufacturing center. It's also the world’s largest carbon-emitting nation. After years of criticism, China has appeared to take the risks related to climate change seriously, and became a signatory on last winter’s COP21 agreement. Long an adversary of the U.S. when it comes to global climate issues, China joined American diplomats and those from 120 countries to ratify COP21 this April.

Meanwhile, China’s solar power sector is rapidly expanding. And evidence suggests China's overall renewables industry is surging overall, while coal consumption declined. Even the actor and longtime climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio praised China’s efforts earlier this year.

But according to Greenpeace, China is on pace to open one new coal-fired plant a week until 2020. The results mean the country’s government could waste at least 1 trillion Chinese Yuan, or $150 billion, on what the environmental group says is unneeded power capacity coming from fossil fuels. Such growth will continue, even after Greenpeace applauded China earlier this year for what the country called a crackdown on coal-fired power plant approvals.

The outcome of these new plants would reverse the largely downward trend of coal use in China. New energy policies implemented earlier this decade led to the plateau of coal consumption in 2011, and even a decline two years later. But Greenpeace says the green light for more coal plants has stayed on, largely because an updated directive in April exempted both projects in China’s western region and plants connected to the national grid by long-distance transmission lines. And not all of China’s provinces are subject to its labyrinth of energy rules. Combine these factors, as many as 660 new coal-fired plants could launch across the country over the next several years.

By 2020, China could have as much as 1,200 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power plants either fully operational or under construction. But Greenpeace estimates that the scaling-up of renewable power technologies means the country could see an overcapacity of a minimum of 400 GW. In addition to the money wasted, Greenpeace researchers claim that half of the new coal-fired plants under construction, or already approved, are in the country’s most water-stressed regions.

Furthermore, the addition of these new coal plants could slow the implementation of clean-energy technologies in many areas or compete with wind or solar power installations currently under construction. This means some areas could generate renewable power with no way to contribute efficiently to the grid. Utility managers, who are eager to keep the lights on and factories humming, will still gravitate to signing contacts with coal power plant operators, who are seen as more reliable than their next-generation counterparts.

This expansion of coal puts a damper on China’s pledge to generate 15 percent of its power from renewables by 2020, with an increase to 30 percent by 2030. It would also dwarf China’s pledge to retire 70 GW of coal-fired power capacity.

Such a surge in power generation from coal could put China’s renewable power commitment in doubt or, in a worst-case scenario, even mathematically impossible.

To stem what Greenpeace portrays as a financial and environmental disaster, the organization recommends several high-level changes in policy. The report’s authors suggest:

  • The central government’s ban on new coal-fired plant construction should extend throughout all provinces.

  • The government should cancel projects that started last year or later, as well as those in water-stressed areas.

  • Energy officials should retire older coal plants rather than retrofit them.

Such advice goes above and beyond what China’s leading energy policymakers recommended earlier this spring.

Such recommendations, however, are akin to using a lasso to catch an Airbus A380 jetliner. Despite China’s recent manufacturing slowdown, its middle class keeps expanding and even Fortune magazine predicts the nation’s growing demand for energy will not slow down until 2030.

But if China expects continued cooperation from the U.S., European Union and its wary neighbors in Asia on issues, including those related to climate change and energy, the government needs to find a way to put the brakes on what environmental groups describe as a ravenous thirst for fossil fuels.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye