China’s progress in renewable energy has been paralleled by a boom in coal power

China is recognized as the undisputed world leader in the expansion of renewable energy sources.

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China has made rapid progress in expanding clean energy, raising hopes that the world’s biggest carbon emitter will soon start curbing greenhouse gas pollution.

A massive wave of approvals for new coal-fired power poses a significant challenge to the country’s climate goals, with Beijing seen as “a notable exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development,” according to Global Energy Monitor.

China approved the largest number of new coal-fired plants since 2015 last year, according to research from the Energy and Clean Air and GEM Research Center released late last month.

Beijing has authorized 106 gigawatts of new coal power in 2022, four times more than a year ago and equivalent to 100 large coal-fired power plants.

China’s extraordinary speed in approving projects was believed to be fueled by energy security concerns, particularly power shortages following last summer’s historic drought and heatwave.

CREA and GEM experts say major additions of new coal-fired capacity may not mean more carbon emissions from the power sector in China, especially given the country’s rapid progress in expanding clean energy.

China was revealed to have authorized 106 gigawatts of new coal-fired power in 2022, four times more than a year ago and equivalent to 100 large coal-fired power plants.

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China is recognized as the undisputed global leader in renewable energy expansion, adding new projects to the grid as fast as the rest of the world in 2022.

The construction will take place as part of the government’s “well-planned and phased” strategy to reduce energy intensity and peak emissions.

“As we look around the world today, we clearly see an energy transition underway,” said Mike Hemsley, deputy director of the Energy Transition Commission think tank.

“China is building renewables at such an amazing rate [that] It’s said to exceed their targets,” Hemsley said at International Energy Week in London last week. He said that about 50% of the renewable power plants built each year are built in China.

“To put this into context, we heard Masdar’s really impressive goal of building 100 gigawatts of renewables by 2030. [but] China is building about 75 gigawatts of wind annually and more than 100 gigawatts of solar annually,” Hemsley said.

Hemsley said that on its current trajectory, Beijing is on track to reach 1,800 gigawatts of total renewable energy by 2030. That would be 50% higher than the 1,200 gigawatts of total renewable power that Chinese President Xi Jinping has set by the end of the decade.

“It is a consequence of existence [that] they exceed their national share and may peak emissions by 2030, some say around 2025. [or] 2026, Hemsley said, describing it as “really good news.”

“A hot, still summer evening is a distraction”

The International Energy Agency said earlier this month that global carbon emissions, while still rising, may at least have plateaued.

Energy-related carbon emissions will rise by less than 1% in 2022, reaching a new peak of more than 36.8 billion tonnes. Growth was smaller than expected as renewables helped limit the impact of global increases in coal and oil consumption. In comparison, global energy emissions are expected to increase by 6% in 2021.

According to the IEA, China’s emissions are expected to be flat in 2022 as Covid-19 measures and reduced construction activity lead to weaker economic growth.

“Taking China’s emissions cap has an indispensable role in capping and reducing global emissions and the success of global efforts overall,” said Laurie Millivirta, CREA’s lead analyst.

In 2020, China’s Xi Jinping announced plans for the world’s second-largest economy to peak carbon emissions in 2030 and aim for carbon neutrality by 2060.

Myllyvirta told CNBC by phone that depending on his approach, China’s climate goals could be seen as inflexible or unambitious, stressing that it’s important to remember that they allow for “big results.”

“Network planners believe there will be hours, days or weeks in the summer [when] they will need coal-fired power plants,” Millivirta said.

China’s energy system remains dependent on coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, to meet peak electricity loads and manage demand variability and clean energy supply.

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is the main driver of the climate crisis.

“A hot, quiet summer evening is disturbing. Where [they] Do you get enough power to keep the lights on? Therefore, they consider coal-fired power plants more necessary, because in this case they have traditionally met the demand,” said Millivirta.

If China follows through on its climate commitments – as CREA expects – then the think tank says the country’s new coal-fired power plants will be “a short-term and underutilized bad investment”.

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