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China approves more than 50GW of coal power in 2023 despite climate concerns

Image credit: DT

China has approved more than 50 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power in the first six months of 2023 despite commitments to reduce its carbon emissions, research from Greenpeace has shown.

The charity reviewed project approval documents, finding that 20.45GW of new coal was approved in the first quarter of 2023, which more than doubled to 50.4GW by the end of the second quarter.

This is despite the 2020 announcement from Chinese President Xi Jinping that his country aims to reach net zero carbon by 2060 and peak CO2 emissions by 2030.

The coal power and steel sectors are China’s two largest emitters of CO2, and there is no sign of investment in coal-based capacity being scaled back yet.

Permitting new coal power projects was essentially frozen in 2021, as the Chinese leadership emphasised strictly controlling high-emissions projects. However, reflecting shifting political signals, new coal power projects restarted in 2022 as gas prices spiked in the wake of the Ukraine war.

New coal-based power plants and integrated steel plants have a typical lifetime of 20-40 years and will lock the sectors further into coal dependency.

Gao Yuhe, a Beijing-based project leader with Greenpeace East Asia, said: “We see a lot of new wind and solar and a lot of new coal. Our major concern now, aside from the obvious emissions problem, is that energy storage remains sidelined despite the key role it needs to play in the near future.

“Building renewable energy but no energy storage is like building wheels but no axel. The energy transition isn’t just about buckets of wind and solar, but also the infrastructure that will tap those power sources into meeting electricity demand. Energy storage is a top concern for China. It’s not just about building up a new power supply. It’s about designing a system that will meet electricity demand.”

A separate analysis by Greenpeace East Asia last week looked at which provinces are pursuing energy transition solutions by tracking top province’s “key project lists”.

It found that Guangdong and Jiangsu are emerging as potential hubs of green manufacturing. Even among the leading regional economies analysed, however, renewable energy projects only made up 10 per cent of all projects in Jiangsu and less than 4 per cent in Guangdong, Zhejiang and Shanghai.

“It’s clear that there’s money to be made in becoming a green manufacturing hub. Provinces are cued in on that,” Gao added.

“But there is not adequate guidance from the central government. China’s race to lead the green economy has begun. But the competitors are just guessing which way to go. Provinces need to develop clear guidance. And in China that requires policy signals from the central government. Coal is the problem. The signal remains that coal is still an option. The race has begun but there’s still coal on the course.”

China’s National Development and Reform Commission last week announced efforts to add flexibility to power grids and build energy storage capacity to avoid outages, which are key problems in China’s power system.

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