China has an answer to the heat waves now affecting much of the Northern Hemisphere: burn more coal to maintain a stable power supply for air conditioning.
Even before this year, China emitted nearly a third of all 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 from coal, its dominant fuel source, than it did in June 2022.
China’s ability to increase coal use in recent weeks is the result of a huge national campaign over the past two years to expand coal mines and build more coal-fired power plants. State media celebrated the hard work of the 1,000 workers who toiled without holidays this spring to finish one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in southeast China in time for summer.
The paradox of China’s energy policy is that the country also leads the world in the installation of renewable energies. It controls most of the global supply chain for clean energy – from solar panels to batteries to electric cars. However for reasons of energy security and domestic politics, it doubles on coal.
After three days of talks in Beijing, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said on Wednesday that China’s coal program was the most difficult issue. “The question now is to change from some dependence on coal,” he said.
The United States, which emits far fewer greenhouse gases than China, is headed in a different direction. It hasn’t built a new coal-fired plant in a decade, while nearly halving its coal use and increasing natural gas use instead.
No country has underground coal reserves as large as those in China, where officials see domestic supplies as vital 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 view the protection of 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 will “strictly control coal power projects, strictly control the growth of coal consumption” until 2025 and then “gradually reduce it” over the next five years. In mid-September 2021, he specifically 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 power grid and caused rolling blackouts up and down the country’s coast. Workers had only a few minutes’ warning to flee office stairs before the elevators closed. A sudden loss of power at a chemical plant caused an explosion that injured dozens of workers.
The failure 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 halting of Russian energy supplies to Europe, has increased Beijing’s determination to rely on coal as the core of its energy security.
China mostly imports oil and natural gas, much of it arriving in sea lanes controlled by the navies of the United States or India, two geopolitical rivals. After partial meltdowns at three nuclear reactors in 2011 at Fukushima, in Japan, China limited the construction of nuclear power plants to a few locations close to the coast.
As of January, China had more than 300 coal-fired power plants in various stages of proposal, permit or construction, according to Global Energy Monitor, a research group. This was two-thirds of coal-fired capacity being developed worldwide.
Contribution to the construction boom: During the blackouts of 2021, Chinese provinces tried to accumulate electricity and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments have responded by trying to build coal-fired power plants within their borders.
“Building this super-renewable coal-fired power plant will raise our total cost of energy,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental group.
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, a China power analyst at the Lantau Group, a Hong Kong consulting firm.
While China is building more and more coal-fired power plants, it is also leading the way in solar and wind power. It has installed 3.5 times more solar power capacity and 2.6 times more wind power than the United States, according to the International Renewable Energy Association, an intergovernmental group in the United Arab Emirates.
China’s largest wind and solar projects tend to be in sparsely populated western and northwestern regions, where the weather is sunny and windy much of the year.
But those sites are far from the provinces near the coast where most of the population lives and where many power-hungry companies are – and where the weather is generally cloudier and less windy.
Connecting vast solar panel farms and rows of wind turbines to the coastal areas required the construction of ultra-high-voltage power lines. China has built more miles of ultra high voltage lines than the rest of the world combined.
One problem is that such lines are prohibitively expensive. China’s power companies must buy 200-meter-wide strips of land for each line, for hundreds of miles. So 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 alongside wind and solar projects to ensure they can deliver power continuously, said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based energy expert who is a non-resident fellow with the Center for Global Energy Policy. at Columbia University.
Another big climate change issue posed by China’s continued heavy use of coal is how it is mined. More than in most countries, China’s coal is mined underground, a practice that tends to release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 20 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its warming effects in the atmosphere. Chinese physicists have estimated that a quarter of all methane emissions in China come from its more than 100,000 coal mines, mostly small mines long abandoned but still leaking gases.
One unforeseen force could help China reduce its reliance on coal: a meltdown in its real estate market.
Factories use two-thirds of China’s electricity, with the dominant users being the steel and cement plants and glass manufacturers that power the country’s vast construction efforts.
But housing prices are falling because years of overbuilding have produced as many as 80 million empty apartments. Developers started building almost a quarter less apartments in the first half of this year compared to a year earlier.
However, even a housing slowdown will not reverse the enormous coal investment that China has just made. “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 make a more aggressive timeline on emissions difficult.”
He You contributed research. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan; and Lisa Friedman from Beijing.