Editorial viewpoints from Climate Central's writers and editors.

China’s Growing Coal Use Is World’s Growing Problem

China has been praised recently for its investments in renewable energy. And the credit is well deserved as China's commitment to renewables dwarfs that of the U.S. and other industrialized countries. From 2010 to 2012 alone, China’s renewable electricity growth was double that of the U.S., and it is continuing to grow.

But all the accolades are distracting us from the reality that fossil fuels dominate China’s energy landscape, as they do in virtually every other country. Today, fossil fuels account for 87 percent of all energy used in China. And the focus on renewables also hides the fact that China’s reliance upon coal is predicted to keep growing.

Click image to enlarge

Coal, the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, accounts for 70 percent of energy used in China today and is responsible for about three quarters of electricity generation. 

  • In just 5 years, from 2005 through 2009, China added the equivalent of the entire U.S. fleet of coal-fired power plants, or 510 new 600-megawatt coal plants.
  • From 2010 through 2013, it added half the coal generation of the entire U.S. again.
  • At the peak, from 2005 through 2011, China added roughly two 600-megawatt coal plants a week, for 7 straight years.  
  • And according to U.S. government projections, China will add yet another U.S. worth of coal plants over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years.

Helping China cut its coal emissions should be a top priority for all nations, including improving energy efficiencies further, using even more renewable energy, and deploying CO2 capture and storage technologies. The U.S. could go a long way to encouraging this by pursuing more aggressive CO2 reduction efforts at home. 

China burns more than 4 billion tons of coal each year in power plants, homes, and factories. By comparison, the U.S. burns less than 1 billion, and the entire European Union burns 600 million. China surpassed the U.S. to become the largest global CO2 emitter in 2007, and it is on track to double annual U.S. emissions by 2017. While projections for the U.S. and Europe are for steady or decreasing coal use in the coming decades, barring major policy shifts, China’s coal use is expected to keep increasing.

Economists predict that by 2040, China’s coal power fleet will be 50 percent larger than it is today. Once these coal-fired power plants are built, they typically run for 40 years, or longer, which means a commitment to decades of CO2 emissions. The climate impact of those emissions will be nearly impossible to reverse. 

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its estimate of the allowable total cumulative global CO2 emissions between 2012 and 2100 to prevent the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Beyond 2C warming the impacts of climate change will be increasingly severe, including more and longer heat waves, damaging levels of sea level rise, increased heavy rains and flooding, more persistent and hotter droughts, and increasingly acidic oceans. 

If China’s coal use continues to increase as predicted, by 2040 China will have consumed more than a third of that global budget. Combined with the U.S. and the rest of the world, China’s emissions have the planet on a path to surpass the global budget by 2040. 

Some people say it is unfair to single out China, and that is not the intention here. Historically speaking, the U.S. is the largest CO2 emitter. And some of China’s emissions come from manufacturing goods that get exported to the U.S. and other countries. It is also true that the U.S. and the European Union have far higher emissions per capita, even as their overall emissions are slowly declining.  

But the reality is that China, because of its sheer size, is in a position to do more than any other country to stop the world from going off the proverbial climate cliff. With the current coal trajectory of China, all the windmills in the world won’t deliver our children a climate they can depend on.

Eric Larson is a senior scientist for Climate Central and a research engineer with the Energy Systems Analysis Group at the Princeton Environmental Institute. 

Related Content 
China’s Coal Reliance Reduces Life Span by 5.5 Years 
Report: Can U.S. Carbon Emissions Keep Falling? 
Scientists, U.N. Official Warn of ‘Unabated’ Coal Use 
Coal’s Slipping Grip: Death of a Georgia Coal Plant

« Commentary


By Mark (Las Vegas, NV 89128)
on January 27th, 2014

I can relate to this article.  My wife and I lived in Beijing from 1996 to 1999.  During the winter months, as soon as you stepped outside, you could smell the coal dust in the air.  It mentions in the article “At the peak, from 2005 through 2011, China added roughly two 600-megawatt coal plants a week, for 7 straight years.”  That sentence strongly indicates the situation is much worse now than when we left China in 1999.  I also recall very few of those heavy air pollution days in Beijing shown in TV newscasts in recent years.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on January 27th, 2014

China’s massive and growing carbon emissions are a well known and increasingly severe concern in view of the remaining global carbon emissions budget for the 2C threshold. But this article fails to place that well received fact into the context of the net global GHG emissions problem. The article also horribly understates what the 2C threshold represents by omitting the actual definition.

The referenced 2C threshold is the dangerous anthropogenic interference or DAI level for global warming expressed in terms of the eventual estimated equilibrium value of global mean temperature rise due to GHG emissions. It is intended as a guide to demarcate somewhat more than a scenario of deteriorating weather. It specifically relates to a range of disastrous and irreversible environmental changes that have been predicted to occur as global temperatures increase, a.k.a. environmental tipping points. That’s why it is considered so very dangerous.

Some additional statistics on global carbon emissions versus carbon budget might help restore the context. According to a recent Climate Central article, the remaining global carbon emissions budget for 2C is roughly 285 billion metric tons (PgC), which is the number you get after you convert the GtCO2 unit in figure 2, (source IPCC): http://www.climatecentral.org/news/scientists-u.n.-official-issue-blunt-warnings-to-coal-industry-16755

Global coal production is currently nearly 8 bn tons (2013 est.) or twice the rate of Chinese consumption that is reported here. Atmospheric carbon emissions from that coal when consumed are then of course roughly the same. http://www.worldcoal.org/_assetrequest.php?doc=/bin/pdf/original_pdf_file/coal_facts_2013(11_09_2013).pdf

CO2 emissions from oil and natural gas use are also significant and not slowing down either. Adding those in, according to Reuters, brings us up to about 11 GtC emissions per year from burning all fossil fuels. Dividing 285 by 11 indicates that we will use up te budget in 26 years, (until 2040), assuming the current rate doesn’t increase. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/19/us-global-carbon-emissions-idUSBRE9AI00A20131119

So far, that would appear to agree with the projection cited in this article. “Combined with the U.S. and the rest of the world, China’s emissions have the planet on a path to surpass the global budget by 2040.”

But as close as 2040 is, it is still not realistic because a number of other emission sources are omitted along with projected growth because net emissions are increasing. Accordingly, we also need to account for the CO2 emissions from land use changes, the CO2 equivalent emissions due to the other anthropogenic greenhouse gases that we put in the air, such as methane and nitrous oxide and also something realistic to account for the effects of methane emissions from the rapidly warming Arctic ocean and tundra which are apparently not now insignificant either. So then we step back to consider the result – which is our best estimate. What is it? I don’t know. But I have the uneasy suspicion that we may have the cultural equivalent of until next Tuesday, Friday latest, to solve what is termed here as a “growing” problem. In my opinion putting it that way fails to convey the true sense of the current situation which I think is actually now deserving of a much richer and stronger terminology.

BTW: EU CO2 emissions per capita are only a bit higher as opposed to “far higher” than those in China while US CO2 emissions per capita are roughly 2 ½ times that of the EU, which instead is indeed “far higher”. (2010 data).

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By Bob Bingham (Kerikeri)
on January 28th, 2014

Coal is the killer. If we can stop using that first we can then get rid of oil which we use mainly for transport.

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By Mike S
on January 28th, 2014

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that China’s per capita emissions of CO2 is still well below ours.

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By mikeword
on February 1st, 2014

China’s per capita emissions are far less than the US and Europe’s. Thanks for pointing this out. China seems to be -I include myself here- getting the bad rap in all this climate language that is floating around. China and other countries look around and see what we have and say I want that. We need to help rather than speak.

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By Robert Callaghan
on February 5th, 2014

China will build a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years! Geeze! That quote is so-o-o, like 5 seconds ago. Are people still using that? China is also planning to build 500 nuclear plants in by 2050. If everybody flushed the toilet at the same time the world will run out of water. We are entering the hunger games. Yes we can feed the poor and hungry, but we won’t. We can possibly save ourselves, but we won’t. We don’t have the backbone and in 50 years half the species with backbones on earth will be gone. It took 33,000 years after the dinosaurs to die out, we are on track for 75% species extinction in 300 years at most. We are acidifying the oceans faster than the Permian mass extinction which wiped out 95%. 95% of the human diet comes from just 5 main crops. We consume 50% of earth’s green stuff while we prepare to extract energy from even more foods while people go hungry.

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By Roger Southerland (Morgantown, Ky 42261)
on June 9th, 2014

To have the US give up coal (i.e. freeze this winter) for the sake of convincing China to follow suit reminds me of the old folks telling us kids to finish our plates in order not to waste food due to starving kids in Africa. All I remember is gaining weight. Never did hear if the African kids gained any.

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By Calamity Jean
on August 26th, 2014

“...China’s reliance upon coal is predicted to keep growing.”

Predicted by whom?

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By Calamity Jean
on August 27th, 2014

I’m asking because of this, which seems to indicate that Chinese coal burning will peak before 2020: http://sierraclub.typepad.com/compass/2014/08/chinese-coal-consumption-just-fell-for-the-first-time-this-century.html

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By Curly (Melbourne)
on August 27th, 2014

“Predicted by who?” indeed. Not everyone agrees…


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By Bob Wallace
on August 28th, 2014

The Chinese government stated a couple years back that their goal was to hit peak coal consumption by 2015.  Some months later they stated that they might not be able to peak until 2017.

If you check numbers more carefully, there was a rate change in 2007, the growth rate slowed.

Coal use did not increase in 2013.  Coal consumption fell slightly during the first half of 2014. 

This may not be coal “peak”, but it looks like coal “plateau”. 

The post-2020 consumption curves for both China and the US look like wishful thinking on the part of the coal industry.

BTW, are you aware that coal stock prices have taken a serious downturn over the last couple of years?  Looks like investors are bailing.

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By Brian Donovan (Vancouver)
on September 13th, 2014

Gee Bob, where the link.  You aren’t the petty tyrant here.

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By Calamity Jean
on October 7th, 2014

Curly (Melbourne) posted it.

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By Riccardo Pusceddu (London/UK)
on October 8th, 2014

“But the reality is that China, because of its sheer size, is in a position to do more than any other country to stop the world from going off the proverbial climate cliff. With the current coal trajectory of China, all the windmills in the world won’t deliver our children a climate they can depend on.”
But I can’t quite grasp the moral expectation of the author considering that China should do more because Chinese are more numerous than Americans and Europeans when we actually pollute much more per capita. Before asking Chinese to do more we should surely try to match their per capita emissions and then we’ll have the moral right to tell them to slow down theirs

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