China’s carbon neutrality pledge hurt by new coal power plans, says climate report

China cannot build more coal-fired power plants after 2020 as planned if it wants to honour its pledge to go carbon neutral by 2060, new research by two environmental groups said on Friday.

The Chinese government’s plans to build more coal-fired power plants “contradicts” its carbon neutral targets, Draworld Environment Research Centre of Beijing and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland said in the report published on Friday.

China aims to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, the country’s President Xi Jinping promised at the general debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

“China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures,” he had said.

China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, accounting for 28% of global emissions.

The rise in global emissions in 2019 was almost entirely due to China, which increased its CO2 output by 0.26GtCO2 (Gt: Gigatonnes), according to data published on the website CarbonBrief last year.

The new report, published simultaneously from Beijing and Helsinki, titled “China’s carbon neutrality target implies planned coal power expansion cannot go ahead”, questions the lofty promise given Beijing’s plans to build more coal-fired plants.

The report points out that China has around 130GW redundant coal power capacity among the total coal-fired capacity of more than 1,000GW. “However, power industry players have advocated for an expansion to 1,300GW or even higher by 2030,” it said.

Here’s what needs to be done, according to the report’s authors.

“The report’s authors call for China to initiate a policy process to phase out coal-fired power plants. At the same time, the rate of wind and solar power expansion needs to double over the next ten years to fulfill domestic targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” they said.

“Short- and medium-term plans to decarbonise the power sector before 2050 are essential to achieve China’s much-lauded objective for carbon neutrality by 2060,” the authors added.

Lead author, Dr. Zhang Shuwei, Draworld Environment Research Centre’s chief economist, said, “The proposed expansion of total installed capacity in a sector already riddled with overcapacity and low returns on assets will result in more than 2 trillion RMB of stranded assets during the entire life cycle.”

“The policy on coal-fired power plants needs to consider employment and management of state-owned assets to promote a transition to renewable power. A further expansion of the coal-fired power industry would greatly complicate this challenge, requiring a cliff fall of coal power generation after 2030,” Zhang added.

China has nearly 250 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power under development, a study published in June had said.

New coal project approvals have accelerated in 2020, the joint study by Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and CREA said in June.

“While much of the world is moving away from coal, China continues to make it a central part of its energy mix,” said Christine Shearer, coal programme director at GEM in June.

The Draworld and CREA report says that power system planning of the “14th five-year Plan” should include a clear signal to at least double the annual rate of renewable energy installations, to more than 100GW annually.

The required scale-up of emission-free power has already been envisioned in official documents: China’s 2016 energy strategy proposed that non-fossil fuel sources should account for at least 50% of total electricity generation by 2030.

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