China has an answer to the heat waves now affecting much of the Northern Hemisphere: to burn more coal to maintain a stable electricity supply for air conditioning.
Even before this year, China emits 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 main fuel source, than in June 2022.
China’s ability to ramp up coal consumption 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 zeal of the 1,000 workers who toiled without vacation this spring to complete 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 is also a world leader in installing renewable energy sources. It dominates most of the global clean energy supply chain – from solar panels to battery storage to electric cars. But for reasons of energy security and domestic politics, it doubles on coal.
After three days of negotiations in Beijing, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, said on Wednesday that China’s coal program had been the most difficult point. “The question now is to move away from some of the dependence on coal,” he said.
The United States, which emits much less greenhouse gases than China, is moving in a different direction. It has not built a new coal-fired power station in a decade, while cutting its coal consumption almost in half and increasing its natural gas consumption.
No country has underground coal reserves as large as those in China, where officials consider domestic supplies essential to energy security. Zhang Jianhua, director of the government’s National Energy Administration, described coal as the “ballast brick” of his country’s energy mix.
“Always consider 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 would “strictly control coal power projects, strictly control the growth of coal consumption” until 2025, and then “gradually reduce” over the next five years. In mid-September 2021, he separately banned all further contracts for China to build coal plants in other countries.
A week later, at the end of September 2021, hot weather overloaded China’s power grid and caused power outages all along the country’s coast. Employees had just a few minutes to flee the office towers before the elevators stopped working. A sudden blackout at a chemical plant led to an explosion that injured dozens of workers.
The debacle sparked an emergency effort to increase coal mining and build more coal plants in China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent cut off 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, much of which arrives via shipping lanes controlled by the navies of the United States or India, two geopolitical rivals. After partial meltdowns of three nuclear reactors in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, China has restricted nuclear power plant construction to a few locations close to the coast.
In 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. That was two-thirds of the coal-fired capacity being developed worldwide.
Contributing to the construction boom: During the 2021 blackout, Chinese provinces tried to hoard electricity and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments have responded by building coal-fired power stations within their borders.
“Building all these super-redundant coal plants will drive up our overall energy costs,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental group.
Virtually all new factories in China are being built by state-owned companies because private developers see the facilities as not financially viable, said David Fishman, a Chinese electricity analyst at Lantau Group, a Hong Kong consulting firm.
While China is building more and more coal plants, it is also a leader in solar and wind energy. It has installed 3.5 times as much solar energy and 2.6 times as much wind energy as 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 it is sunny and windy for much of the year.
But those locations are far from the coastal provinces where most of the population lives and where there are many energy-hungry businesses — and where the weather is generally cloudier and less windy.
To connect huge solar panel parks and rows of wind turbines to the coastal areas, the construction of ultra-high-voltage lines was necessary. China has built more kilometers of ultra-high-voltage lines than the rest of the world combined.
One problem is that such lines are exorbitantly expensive. The Chinese energy companies have to buy 200 meter wide strips of land for each line, over hundreds of kilometers. So to be cost effective, the lines must transmit electricity 24 hours a day. But the sun doesn’t shine bright all day and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.
As a result, most new coal plants in China are being built in conjunction with wind and solar projects to ensure they can transmit power continuously, said Kevin Tu, a Beijing energy expert who is a nonresident fellow at the Center for global energy policy at Columbia University.
Another major climate change problem caused by China’s continued heavy use of coal is the way it is mined. More than in most countries, China’s coal is mined underground, a practice that releases 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 that have long been abandoned but still leak gases.
One unexpected force could help China reduce its dependence on coal: a collapse in its real estate market.
Factories use two-thirds of China’s electricity, and the dominant users are the steel and cement plants and glass manufacturers that fuel the country’s massive construction effort.
But house prices are falling as years of overbuilding have led to as many as 80 million vacant apartments. In the first half of this year, developers started building almost a quarter fewer apartments than a year earlier.
But even a housing market slowdown won’t undo the massive investment in coal China has just made. “All the coal 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 potentially complicates a more aggressive timeline for emissions.”
Li you contributed research. Chris Buckley reporting contributed from Taipei, Taiwan; And Lisa Friedman from Beijing.