China has an answer to the heat waves now affecting much of the Northern Hemisphere: burn more coal to maintain a stable supply of electricity for air conditioning.
Even before this year, China was emitting nearly one-third of energy-related greenhouse gases – more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. China burns more coal each year than the rest of the world combined. Last month, China generated 14 percent more electricity than it did in June 2022, with coal plants generating the entire increase.
China’s ability to increase coal use in recent weeks is the result of a massive national campaign over the past two years to expand coal mines and build more coal-fired power plants. State media celebrated the enthusiasm of the 1,000 workers who worked without holidays this spring to complete one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in southeast China in time for the summer.
The paradox of China’s energy policy is that the country also leads the world in renewable energy installation. It dominates most of the global supply chain for clean energy – from solar panels to battery storage to electric cars. But for reasons of energy security and domestic politics, he is doubling down on coal.
After three days of negotiations in Beijing, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said on Wednesday that China’s coal program is the most difficult issue. “The issue now is transitioning away from some of the dependence on coal,” he said.
The United States, which emits far less greenhouse gas than China, is in the opposite direction. It has not built a new coal-fired plant in the last decade, nearly halving its coal use and increasing its use of natural gas instead.
No country has underground coal reserves as large as those in China, where officials see domestic supplies as essential to energy security. Zhang Jianhua, director of the government’s National Energy Administration, described coal as the “ballast stone” of his country’s energy mix.
“Always be vigilant about protecting national energy security as the most important mission,” he said at a news conference this spring.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, said in April 2021 that his country would “strictly control coal-fired power projects, strictly control the growth of coal consumption” through 2025 and “gradually reduce it” in the next five years. In mid-September 2021, he separately banned any further contracts for China to build coal-fired power plants in other countries.
A week later, in late September 2021, hot weather overloaded China’s electrical grid and caused rolling blackouts up and down the country’s shores. Workers had only a few minutes’ warning to flee office lifts before the elevators were shut down. A sudden loss of power in a chemical plant resulted in an explosion that injured dozens of workers.
The debacle prompted an emergency effort to increase coal mining and build more coal-fired power plants in China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent shutdown of Russian energy supplies to Europe, has increased Beijing’s determination to rely on coal as the core of its energy security.
China mainly imports oil and natural gas, and reaches many sea lanes controlled by the navies of the United States or India, two geopolitical rivals. After the partial meltdown of three nuclear reactors in 2011 at Fukushima, Japan, China has limited the construction of nuclear plants to a few locations near the coast.
As of January, China had more than 300 coal-fired power plants in various stages of proposal, approval or construction, according to Global Energy Monitor, a research group. That represented two-thirds of the coal-fired capacity being developed worldwide.
Adding to the building boom: During the 2021 blackouts, Chinese provinces tried to hoard electricity and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments responded by trying to build coal-fired power plants within their borders.
“In order to build this super-excess coal power, our total energy costs will go up,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, an environmental group based in Beijing.
Almost all of China’s new plants are being built by state-owned enterprises because private developers see the facilities as financially unviable, said David Fishman, China electricity analyst at Lantau Group, a Hong Kong consulting firm.
While China is building more coal-fired plants, solar and wind power are also leading the way. It has installed 3.5 times as much solar power capacity and 2.6 times as much wind power as the United States, according to the International Renewable Energy Association, an intergovernmental group in the United Arab Emirates.
The largest wind and solar projects in China tend to be in the sparsely populated western and northwestern regions, where the weather is sunny and windy for much of the year.
But those sites are far from the coastal provinces where most of the population lives and where many electricity-hungry companies are located – and where the weather is generally cloudier and less windy.
In order to connect huge solar panel farms and rows of wind turbines to the coastal areas, it is necessary to build ultra-high voltage power lines. China has built more thousand ultra high voltage lines than the rest of the world combined.
One problem is that such lines are extremely expensive. Chinese power companies have to buy 200 meter wide strips of land for each line, spanning hundreds of miles. To be cost effective, the lines must transmit electricity around the clock. But the sun doesn’t shine brightly all day and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.
As a result, most of China’s new coal-fired power plants are being built in conjunction with wind and solar projects, to ensure they can transmit power continuously, said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based energy expert who is a non-resident fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Another major climate change problem related to China’s continued heavy use of coal is how it is produced. More than in most countries, China’s coal is mined underground, a practice that tends to release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. There is methane 20 to 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in its warming effects in the atmosphere. Chinese physicists have estimated that a quarter of China’s methane emissions come from more than 100,000 coal mines, mostly small mines that have long been abandoned but are still leaking gas.
One unexpected force could help China reduce its dependence on coal: a crisis in the real estate market.
Factories use two-thirds of China’s electricity, with the dominant users being the steel and cement mills and glass manufacturers that supply the country’s massive construction efforts.
But house prices are falling because years of overbuilding have produced up to 80 million empty apartments. Developers started building almost a quarter fewer apartments in the first half of this year compared to a year earlier.
But even a housing slowdown won’t reverse China’s massive coal investment. “All the coal that’s being added means it’s harder for China to be more ambitious” in tackling climate change, said Michal Meidan, head of China energy research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, an independent research group. “It may put a more aggressive timeline on more complex emissions.”
Li You added research. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan; and Lisa Friedman from Beijing.