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.

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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. 

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