The End of China's Coal Boom

Li Shuo and Lauri Myllyvirta

The killer line in any domestic climate debate is: “What’s the point of reducing emissions here when China is building a coal-fired power plant each week?”

The facts behind China’s coal consumption are daunting. China is the world’s largest energy consumer and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2013, coal accounted for 65% of China’s overall energy consumption, making it the most coal-dependent country among top energy consumers.

China accounts for almost half of global coal consumption and, from 2000 to 2010 its coal use and emissions grew on average at 9% a year. In 2010 alone, China’s increase in coal-fired power generation capacity equaled Germany’s existing generating capacity.

But recently adopted air quality policies and the growth of renewable energy show signs of a major change in trend. Given China’s major role in global emissions, this is of global significance.
For the world outside China, grasping the scale and significance of China’s energy choices is challenging.

China’s major cities have long endured high levels of air pollution. In 2013, 92% of Chinese cities failed to meet national ambient air quality standards. This has not held back the construction of new coal-fired plants and factories, adding to the problem. Coal burning is responsible for almost half of the country’s PM2.5 pollution (particulates with an aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 μm).

In 2013 things started to change. “Airpocalypse” episodes, with exceptionally high levels of air pollution, in Beijing and many major Chinese cities raised public concern about air quality and created enormous pressure to the country’s heavily coal-dependent outlook.

In September 2013, China’s State Council, or cabinet, released an Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in which the Chinese government recognized that tackling the air pollution crisis will require significant reductions in coal consumption. The plan was accompanied by specific coal consumption targets in provincial action plans.

For the first time, the plans introduce coal consumption caps for provinces. Furthermore, many provinces are now committing to reverse the trend of rapid growth in coal use and cut their coal consumption overall in just four years.

No other major coal consuming country has ever implemented such rapid changes in their coal policies. To date, the proposed coal control measures are ambitious. If achieved, the measures will not only fundamentally shift the coal consumption trajectory of the world’s largest coal consumer, but also significantly re-shape the global CO2 emission landscape.

The road away from coal is going to be long and challenging, but it has started. China’s coal appetite is intertwined with its investment-driven, heavily industrialized development model. It will require additional political will to decouple the growing use of coal from economic development. Coal consumption is still expected to grow overall.

Nonetheless, the good news is that there is now an active national debate about placing a ceiling on reliance on coal.
Internationally, China has to make a paradigm shift in its negotiation strategy within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The country needs to be more proactive in communicating its domestic progress. Up to now, the latest coal control measures are still a significant “unknown” in terms of China’s new climate ambition. But with these policies in the pipeline, China has the potential to be a game-changer within the UN climate negotiations for a new treaty to be adopted in Paris, in 2015.


Reprinted from Greenpeace, The End of China’s Coal Boom: 6 Facts You Should Know, April, 2014

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