• This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
  • Earth.Org Newsletters

    Get focused newsletters especially designed to be concise and easy to digest

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
SHOP Support

A rich and biodiverse Indian forest called Hasdeo Arand, home to indigenous communities, ancient trees, elephants and sloths, is under threat by the coal mining industry. Under a new ‘self-reliant India’ plan issued by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, that aims to boost the economy post COVID-19 and limit costly imports, 40 new coalfields in some of India’s most vulnerable forests will be opened to commercial mining. 

The plan marks a shift from state-owned coal to the creation of a privatised, commercial coal sector in India. Among those supporting the plan are India’s wealthy and influential industrial giants, including the US$14 billion Adani group run by the Indian billionaire Guatam Adani, who manages India’s largest coal power plants and is well acquainted with Modi. 

However, not all are on board with the new plan. The coal auction has sparked controversy at both the local and political level for its obvious environmental ramifications, namely the coalfields in India’s forest lands. More than seven coal blocks up for auction have been previously recognised as prohibited areas for mining due to their environmentally valuable status, and approximately 80% of the expected coalfields are home to indigenous communities in India who depend on the forests. 

Four state governments, namely West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisfarh, have written to Modi in opposition or raised legal objections to the plan. One coalfield that intersects India’s Tadoba tiger reserve in Maharashtra has already been removed. 

You might also like: More Than 500 Dams Planned Inside Protected Areas: Study

Adivasi Objection 

Local Adivasi- a term used to describe India’s indigenous people- village leaders wrote to Modi demanding a stop to the auction in Hasdeo Arand.

These communities have witnessed first-hand the environmental obstruction caused by open-cast coal mines. In 2011, two vast open-cast mines were dug out on the outskirts of the forest, demolishing the fragile land and polluting the surroundings with smoke, heat, noise and poison.

With this, crime became more prevalent and elephants that lived in the forest became more aggressive, due to the hostile living conditions, leading to dozens of deaths. Locals say that the prospect of more blocks of the forest being handed over to private mining operations as coalfields will destroy five villages and displace more than 6 000 indigenous people in India. Thousands of hectares of trees will also be torn down to make room for mines and roads. 

Green Recovery Post COVID-19

With many governments across the world aiming for a ‘green recovery’ post COVID-19, there is “no good reason for any country to include coal” in recovery plans, as stated by the UN secretary general, António Guterres. 

By putting fossil fuel at the forefront of its recovery strategy, India is prioritising economic opportunity over environmental sustainability and longevity. 

Modi hopes for India to be the world’s largest exporter of coal, a concerning goal considering that local coal is made up of 45% ash content, making it some of the most polluting coal in the world. Additionally, as countries move away from coal, there may not be the demand for Indian coal. Besides, many major factories in India cannot run on such ‘dirty’ domestic coal, meaning that they will have to import coal from abroad. 

India is the world’s second largest consumer of coal, importing 247 million tons annually and costing more than US$20 billion. However, due to the lasting impacts of COVID-19, electricity demand is forecast to fall by up to 15% over the next five years. 

A report published last week by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that the ‘current state-run coal mines of India already have capacity to produce 20% more coal than the expected demand in 2030’.

Environmental Activists 

Environmental and climate activists question why India does not rely on more environmentally sustainable energy sources and invest in domestic renewable energy such as solar instead.

In August, Modi inaugurated Asia’s largest solar farm in Madhya Pradesh, which makes sense given that India is the world’s cheapest producer of solar power and the cost of constructing a new solar plant is 14% less than that of building a new coal plant. In terms of investment and sustainability, the solar industry should trump the coal industry- especially in light of a global shift to a green economy. 

With correct investment, it has been estimated that the solar energy industry could generate as many as 1.6 million jobs in India by 2022- far greater than what would be generated by domestic coal. 

However, India’s secretary for coal, Maddirala Nagaraju, says that the demand for coal in the foreseeable future is bound to rise and therefore insists that increased domestic coal-mining is the ‘cheapest way of meeting the energy needs of the people’.

“We are the country with the fourth largest coal reserves in the world and we need to provide energy security for over a billion people: coal is the only way,” said Nagaraju.

He acknowledged that there would be ‘costly trade-offs’ in transforming protected forest areas into mining sites, but said this action had the support of local communities who ‘want the land to be acquired because they get high compensation packages’. 

He asks, “How else will we develop these Adivasi people in central India?”

Opponents to the Plan 

Former environment minister, Jairan Ramesh, is among the most vocal opponents of the plan and wrote a letter to Modi condemning coal auctions. 

During his time in office, in 2010, a survey was conducted on the biggest coalfields in India which found that 30% were “no-go areas” due to their biodiversity or resident tiger or elephant populations.

Since Modi’s win in 2014, that 30% of coalfields in India has been reduced to about 5%- demonstrating his lack of concern in investing in environmentally sustainable infrastructure.

Ramesh alleged this resulted from the pressure of the powerful corporate coal lobby, Adani: “Adani is behind this … He is one of the most influential forces on the government.”

“Modi poses as a great environmental champion globally but his track record is one of complete loosening of environmental laws and regulations,” Ramesh added. “The corporate lobbies are just too powerful and in the name of ease for businesses, the environment has become the biggest casualty.”

The Adani group rejected the allegations as baseless and politically motivated. A spokesperson said the company ‘has always strived to provide balanced and affordable energy supply to an energy-deprived population of 1.3 billion people whose per capita energy consumption is less than half the world’s average and almost one-tenth of many of the developed economies’. 

They add, “The Adani Group has been a leading contributor to India’s vision for a balanced energy mix and an enabler of India’s leadership in meeting its Paris agreement target.”

The company says it aims to become the world’s largest renewable energy company by 2025.

Featured image by: Adam Cohn

Calls from Australia for an investigation into China ’s role as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a coal trade war between the two countries, which will have harmful impacts on both countries. While Beijing has responded by blocking the import of Australian barley and beef from major processing plants, Australia continues to put pressure on China’s methods of handling the virus despite risk of further trade retaliation. 

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with China receiving about AUS$123.3 billion (USD$85bn) worth of goods in 2019, equivalent to over 30% of Australia’s total exports. A trade war between these countries could have disastrous consequences for Australia, whose economy was losing about US$2.6bn per week at the height of COVID-related shutdowns. Following Australia’s demands for an investigation into the pandemic, China has blocked Australian imports of barley and beef, worth a total of AUS$9.9 billion in 2017 to 2018. 

Chinese investment in Australia had already fallen by 58% from AUS$8.2 billion to AUS$3.5 billion in 2019, as Australia changed its screening rules for foreign projects to stop Chinese buyers from purchasing strategic assets at low prices. Other countries, such as the US, Canada and members of the EU have also implemented tighter foreign investment screening measures. 

With support from powerful western Allies, including the US, Australia is confident that it can continue to put pressure on China to carry out investigations. However, this puts them at risk of further trade retaliation. 

Tensions have risen as reports suggest that China is now targeting Australian coal by clamping down on import quotas. Australia’s top export commodities to China include iron ores and concentrates, which take up an approximate 15.2% share and coal, with 15%. There was a -2.0% change in the share of iron ores but a 11.3% change in the share of coal from 2017 to 2018, showing the increasing importance of coal exports in Australian trade. In response to this news, Australian coal mining firms are looking to diversify and build their market into southeast Asia in case such quotas come into effect.

You might also like: Tensions in Africa Amid Development of Ethiopian Hydroelectric Dam

In 2019, China’s global purchases of coal totalled US$18.9 billion, with almost 50% of this coming from Australia. Therefore, by applying strict trade barriers on coal coming from Australia, the amount of coal being imported would be cut down considerably. Since China actually imports more coal than it needs and has been pushing for better use of its own resources, this would affect Australia more than China.

The importance of coal exports to Australia allows China to use it as a trading threat, since China has alternative sources of supply from other exporting countries, such as Mongolia, Indonesia and Russia. Due to high amounts of imports during the first five months of the year, China has started to step up its custom checks for coal imports which has led to lengthy processing delays at ports. It appears as though China is looking to boost its domestic coal industry. 

However, doing so will go against China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which places a heavy emphasis on long term sustainability. There are three key areas to the plan, including the promotion of new businesses and business models that support sustainability. This means that businesses must provide services that are resource-efficient enough for at least 10 billion people to use without negatively impacting the planet. 

While coal is widely used to generate electricity due to it being very energy dense, it releases more acidic and greenhouse gas pollutants than both oil and gas, making it an unsustainable and unclean form of energy. 

Furthermore, the coal industry in China is struggling financially, with profits falling since 2016 and turning into losses from 2017. There is significant overcapacity in the sector as China overinvested in the coal power sector; major companies are operating on losses as high as 50% and have debt ratios exceeding 200%, with some plants having to declare bankruptcy and shut down. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

In the last three years, China cancelled 103 projects that were planned or under construction, which eliminated 120 gigawatts of potential coal-fired capacity. However, coal still accounts for 57.7% of its total energy use as of 2019. 

Despite China cancelling a significant amount of coal-fired projects, the country is continuing to grant permits for coal-fired power plants at the highest rate since 2016, and has built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and is home to nearly 90% of generators under construction, according to a recent report by the Global Energy Monitor, a research and advocacy group. 

The International Energy Agency predicts that the world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19. 

Nevertheless, efforts continue to be made to stimulate China’s domestic coal industry, according to a report published by the National Energy Administration in February. The report indicates a loosening in restrictions for new coal-plant approvals. Additionally, the development of major infrastructure programs and other stimulus to counteract the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have been announced, with no mention of prioritising and promoting clean and renewable energy, indicating their continuing dependence on coal as a source of energy. 

Thankfully, China has made remarkable strides in the renewable energy sector and, according to a report published by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation, has become the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of sustainable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles.

It is difficult to say why China continues to prop up its coal industry despite it not having significant financial returns, but what is clear is that China has more than enough of its own coal, and so any attempt by Australia to weaken China’s reputation in the international community will unfortunately affect it more than China, unless Australia can find suitable trading partners. 

However, it is concerning that China continues to develop coal power plants at a time when the planet is trying to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. It should continue to invest in renewable energy projects and divest from fossil fuels, especially since renewable energy has shown to be more profitable than fossil fuels. 

Featured image by: Rose Davies

Over the first half of the year, more coal power generation capacity has shut down than has started operation around the world for the first time on record, according to a US research and advocacy group. 

The Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel development, found that the closure of coal generators across Europe and the US, exceeded stations being commissioned, largely in Asia. 

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, dominates coal power development, having built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and being home to nearly 90% of generators under construction. 

However, the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40% below the same period last year, at 11.4 gigawatts compared to 19.4 GWs, because of COVID-19.

Thankfully, India shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi commissioned 0.9 GW of coal generation, while 1.2 GWs were closed and more than 27 GWs of proposals were cancelled. 

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, says that India had reduced the amount of coal it planned to build because it struggled to compete with cheaper alternatives, such as new solar and wind. 

You might also like: Climate Hypocrite: Canada Continues To Prop Up Fossil Fuels

She adds that the global decline was due to COVID-19 and record retirements in the EU after the carbon price was increased and pollution regulations tightened. Coal-fired generation fell by an estimated 3% last year. 

China and India’s coal fleets were running at barely half capacity before the pandemic started, but China was continuing to grant permits for construction at the highest rate since 2016. 

There is already overcapacity in China’s coal industry. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

“The COVID pandemic has paused coal plant development around the world and offers a unique opportunity for countries to reassess their future energy plans and choose the cost-optimal path, which is to replace coal power with clean energy,” says Shearer.

Globally, 18.3 GWs of coal power was commissioned in the first half of the year, and 21.2 GWs shut. About 8.3 GW of this was in the EU, with Spain shutting half its fleet and Britain going coal-free for two months, and 5.4 GW in the US. 

Japan opened 1.8 GW but plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units and Germany opened the 1.1 GW Datteln coal plant. About 72 GW of planned new coal was cancelled, but 190 GW remains under construction. 

IPCC scenarios suggest that coal power generation must fall 50% below current levels by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Despite this, world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19, according to the International Energy Agency. Additionally, global investment in offshore wind power increased 319% in the first half of the year, with financing approved for 28 new projects totalling USD$35 billion, more than what was approved in all of 2019

Featured image by: Henk Verheyen

The COVID-19 crisis has led to severe economic disruptions, knocking energy markets off balance, especially the electricity sector. Up to now, the energy sector has seen the steady growth of renewables- both globally and within the US- while the power of coal is steadily waning. Faced with COVID-induced economic turbulence, how will renewable energy fare now as growth is forced downwards for the first time in 20 years?

The coal industry has been dealt a hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been identified as one of the sectors most vulnerable to the pandemic-induced economic turmoil. As the world went into lockdown and encouraged social distancing, less electricity was needed to manage utilities. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that electricity consumption in the country this year will be almost 6% less than last year. Coal has been the most impacted, given its higher cost compared to gas, wind and solar power. Consequently, the pressure for companies to shift away from fossil fuels has ramped up. 

Pre-COVID-19, the fossil fuel industry had been under siege from growing climate activism and divestment advocacy. For example, divestment campaigns are gaining momentum in US universities. The University of California recently announced its full divestment from fossil fuels, as did American University. While slow-going compared to the UK, where half of its public universities have embarked on divestment strategies, other universities in the US may eventually follow suit amidst mounting pressure from student bodies. For example, Georgetown University is progressing slowly but steadily, pledging to divest from public securities and private investments relating to fossil fuel companies. 

Globally, divestment strategies are gaining momentum. Barclays, the sixth largest fossil fuel investor globally, is facing greater demands from its investors to halt its fossil fuel lendings. Late last year, the European Investment Bank (EIB) announced its intention to stop funding fossil fuel projects by the end of 2021. Moving away from the West, the EY Global Corporate Divestment Study found that business sentiment to divest is at record high rates among the Southeast Asian companies surveyed. Investors are beginning to turn away from fossil fuels in response to the gloomy prospects of the industry- for the most part. Things are different in the US; to its fossil fuel industry, COVID-19 presents an opportunity for revival, with Trump providing financial aid for struggling oil companies, despite protests by Democrats and environmentalists.

Steady Decline of Coal in US Electricity Sector

The coal industry in the US has been steadily declining. Ten years ago, coal was the powerhouse of US electricity generation, accounting for half of the country’s electricity. Over the years, its share has dwindled, down to 24% in 2019. In the same year, coal energy consumption was outpaced by that of renewables, a first in the US in over 130 years. A June 2020 report by the EIA forecasted that renewable electricity generation would grow by 4% this year, while coal generation would be reduced by a quarter. This disparity comes from the leading role of renewable energy in expanding generation capacity, particularly wind and solar, as well as its low operating cost. In the face of the pandemic, industry analysts predict that the transition from coal to renewables is accelerating, and coal’s share may well diminish to a mere 10% in five years.

You might also like: How The Climate Crisis is Affecting the Global Carbon Cycle

coal renewables
Fig. 1: Declining share of coal in US electricity generation over the years.

Despite this steady decline in coal use, some players are clinging onto a shred of faith that the industry will rebound. Political support for coal is still going strong in some parts of the US, with some pushing for new policies to prevent coal-fired power plants from closing down, however economically unviable they may be. West Virginia recently introduced a bill providing a tax break for coal plants, in exchange for keeping operations running until 2025. In Wyoming, an important state for US coal production, a new legislation obligates electric public utilities to attempt to sell coal plants before they can be closed down, effectively making it harder to retire them. Another legislation serves to pump more research into alternative uses of coal beyond electricity generation. Unfortunately for coal supporters, these efforts may not prevail against the headwinds of market forces; even before COVID-19, Trump – as avid a supporter of coal as he is- could not stop the decline of coal. Since taking office in 2017, coal plants have been shutting down rapidly, with more planned this year. There have been more than four thousand job cuts in the industry, and more than ten coal companies have filed for bankruptcy, including Murray Energy, the US’s largest private coal producer. Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, reported a loss this year, as it has every year since 2015. It is apparent that Trump’s pledge of support for coal has been unfruitful.

The Rise of Renewables and the Fall of Coals

Conversely, the future of renewables appears promising. Technology has been a boon for the dramatic decrease in costs of electricity generation and storage. According to Lazard, a financial advisory that analyses energy costs on an annual basis, the unsubsidised levelised cost of energy (LCOE) of coal ranges from US$66 to $152 per megawatt hour, while wind prices range from $28 to $54 and solar prices $36 to $44. LCOE describes the average cost of electricity generation by a plant over its lifetime, allowing for comparisons between energy competitiveness. Another formidable competitor in the electricity sector is natural gas, cheap and bountiful from the fracking boom. Lazard’s figures show its unsubsidized LCOE to range from $44 to $68. While natural gas has been topping the US electricity mix since 2016, these numbers show that renewables are catching up in terms of cost competitiveness, which is especially welcome considering the methane emissions associated with natural gas. 

While natural gas releases up to 60% less carbon dioxide than coal when burnt efficiently, methane- its primary component– is a much more potent greenhouse gas. While relatively short-lived, methane is still capable of packing a punch over the 20 years it lingers in the atmosphere, having a global warming impact 90 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Given these numbers, the EIA’s 2020 Annual Energy Outlook comes as a relief, as it projects that renewables will eventually surpass natural gas in US electricity generation, doubling from a share of 19% in 2019 to 38% in 2050. Natural gas provided 37% of electricity in 2019, a figure that is expected to remain largely unchanged, coming to 36% in 2050.

However, as with coal, renewables are not immune to the repercussions of COVID-19. As the economy stagnates, renewable installation projects will be temporarily shelved or halted due to supply chain disruptions, lockdown measures and expenditure reduction by companies. The growth of renewables- globally and in the US- is thus expected to take a nosedive. The pandemic is especially ill-timed for the renewable industry, as 2020 was meant to be a record year for capacity expansions. According to the International Energy Authority (IEA), renewable capacity expansions this year is set to be 13% less than that of last year, breaking its 20-year growth. 

Fortunately, this decline is not permanent, cushioned by the long-term trend towards carbon-free energy, which even the pandemic cannot undo. As public and economic pressure force more coal plants to shut down, the resulting vacuum in energy capacity will likely be filled by renewables. Furthermore, more states are ramping up their efforts to go carbon-free. Currently, seven states, such as New York and Washington, have set their clean energy targets to attain 100% clean electricity by 2050. Such policies mandate the installation of renewable plants, hence it is only a matter of time before the shelved projects are set back in motion. 

Post-pandemic, the renewables sector is expected to be well-poised to bounce back on track and continue growing, albeit less rapidly. Governments can play an important role in this comeback by incorporating investments in renewables in stimulus packages designed to help economies recover from the pandemic, with the UN chief urging governments to use taxpayer money to support businesses that cut greenhouse gas emissions and support the creation of green jobs as part of their economic recovery plans. 

Featured image by: Kym Farnik

Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia, is projected to see its demand for electricity double in the next ten years. In an attempt to accelerate its economic development, the country is likely to remain heavily dependent on cheap and plentiful coal to meet its soaring electricity demand, which will further accelerate the warming of the planet.  

Indonesia relies mainly on fossil fuels for its energy supply, with coal accounting for almost one-third of its energy sources, and oil and natural gas accounting for 42% and 16% respectively, according to a 2017 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The use of coal has steadily risen since the turn of the century and is predicted to rise further in an effort to boost the country’s economy. 

Just last year, Indonesia saw ten coal-fired power plants begin operations with a total capacity of 3 GW, making up almost three-fourths of the new power generation in 2019. Among the newly-launched plants is the largest coal-fired power unit, called Java 7 Unit 1, which has a capacity of 1 GW. 

These new coal plants, critics pointed out, offset the nation’s renewable energy growth efforts. The capacity of the Java 7 Unit 1 alone is nearly three times greater than the 376 MW worth of green energy plants launched last year. Java 7’s second unit, also with a capacity of 1 GW, is set to come online next year. 

Coal doesn’t appear to be disappearing anytime soon. Indonesia plans to add 27 GW worth of new coal-fired power plants by 2027. The expansion of coal plants would mean additional greenhouse gas emissions, polluting the air and exacerbating the climate crisis. 

Bar graph showing the top five coal producers’ coal and renewable energy mix: dark blue- coal, light blue- renewable (Source: Earth.Org).

Climate change is of particular significance to Indonesia: its massive coastal population is particularly at risk to sea level rise and the livelihoods of many people depend on agriculture and fishing, which is impacted by temperature changes and water availability. Researchers have found that the climate crisis is causing intensified dry seasons and thus water scarcity in Java, the nation’s most populous island and the economic center. Additionally, a recent study from the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry reported that in the past 15 years, Indonesia has lost almost 2 hectares of coastal area due to rising sea levels. Among the worst affected areas is the northern part of Java Island.

Roughly 23 million people living in the coastal regions, including the densely populated capital city, Jakarta, are at risk of losing their home by 2050 due to the rising sea levels, according to a study from the US-based Climate Central. The government is now relocating the capital city from the sinking Jakarta to Borneo, a move that aims to ease Jakarta’s burden as the center of government and economy.

The Indonesian government has acknowledged the urgent need to cut its coal dependence. However, the country- the world’s fourth largest coal producer after Kazakhstan, South Africa and Russia- is still struggling to do so, mostly because coal is a reliable means to boost the economy. 

It is a common problem in developing countries to have to prioritise either the economy or the environment. “These countries are going to utilise all kinds of energy,” Indonesia’s Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Arifin Tasrif said in an interview. “So allow us to develop our country.”

In order to achieve its green energy commitments under the Paris Agreement, Indonesia needs to end its coal addiction, ending the construction of coal plants and phasing out coal power by this year, a study shows. 

Environmental organisations have warned that the massive coal expansion- which has been financed by major economies, like China, Japan and South Korea- may lead to an energy crisis, which may see the country running out of coal by 2030 and becoming an energy-importing country. 

According to London-based think tank Carbon Tracker, coal will become more expensive as the price of renewable resources falls. Building new renewables, like solar photovoltaic panels, is projected to be less costly compared to operating existing coal plants.

There’s also a substantial risk of those existing coal plants becoming stranded assets (prematurely retired coal plants due to their high operating costs). Under a scenario in which coal power will be phased out in a manner consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement, Indonesia is at risk of losing $35 billion ‘in the next decades’ from these stranded assets.

To avoid these risks, Indonesia should accelerate its energy transition to renewables, exploring and developing alternative fuels, like geothermal and solar power. Unfortunately, renewable energy has yet to show a significant uptake: last year, the country had 12.36% renewable energy in its electricity production mix, far below its 17.5% target. The country voluntarily set itself the target of achieving 23% renewable energy use by 2025, and 31% by 2050.

However, there are signs of hope. At least 35 renewable energy projects with a capacity of 834.71 MW are entering construction with a commercial operation target of between 2019 and 2021. Indonesia is also planning to replace old coal plants with renewable energy and introduce a regulation on renewable energy to attract foreign investors. Those moves can increase the share of renewables in its power mix.

As a country that emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases because of deforestation, peatland megafires and coal consumption, Indonesia needs to work to stick to its emissions reduction targets while continuing to develop its economy. If the mission is successful, Indonesia can set an example for other developing countries that it is possible to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. 

China’s clean energy investments are plummeting, having decreased 39% in the first half of this year from the same period last year. At the same time, construction of new coal plants is set to equal the capacity of all coal plants in the EU. As the world’s biggest carbon emitter, how can China still be expanding its coal production with the 2°C Paris Agreement target in mind? 

A recent statement published by a group of 11,000 scientists warned of ‘untold human suffering’ unless radical climate action and lifestyle changes occur, adding that the Earth is now facing a ‘climate emergency’. 

It’s not all bad news, however: this year, coal-generated electricity is expected to see its biggest global reduction on record. During the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, brought world leaders together in a bid to encourage faster reduction of emissions under the Paris Agreement and he specifically called for member countries to end all new coal developments by 2020. As one of the most carbon-intensive natural resources, coal is at the heart of debates about the climate crisis and emissions. With this in mind, questions arise as to why China is increasing its coal production capacity and decreasing its green energy investments.

In its Renewable Energy Development Five Year Plan established in 2016, China outlined its objectives to include increasing installed renewable power capacity to 680 GW by 2020 and installed wind capacity to 210 GW. Because of these commitments, China has been touted as the next ‘renewable energy superpower’.

China’s Coal Ambitions

Despite this progress, clean energy investments across Asia are plummeting, coinciding with an increase in coal production. China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, accounts for most of this decline. The nation put US$86 billion into clean energy projects in 2018, down from US$122 billion in 2017, as it cut renewables subsidy programmes to control ‘soaring’ costs. Despite this financial concern, a report by the Global Energy Monitor reveals that China expanded coal production by nearly 43 GW between January 2018 and June 2019, far above an 8 GW decline across the rest of the world as more plants closed than were opened.  

The territory doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon: coal plants roughly equal to the coal capacity of the entire EU are under construction, amounting to around 121 GW. The Global Energy Monitor report argues that an increase in coal capacity is incompatible with the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming below 2°C by 2100; as it is, if current activities are continued, this target is optimistic. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that sticking to this target requires a 58%- 70% reduction from current levels in global coal power generation by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2035. 

China’s total coal-fired power capacity stands at more than 1000 GW. The country needs to close more than 40% of that to stick to greenhouse gas reductions required to meet the 2°C target. China’s increase in coal production will entirely offset global declines in coal power use across the rest of the world. 

You might also like: Asia’s Battle Against Plastic Waste

Source: GEM, Global Coal Plant Tracker, July 2019. Net coal power capacity additions continue in China (blue) and the rest of the world has shrunk by 2.8 GW in 2018 and by 0.3 GW in the first half of 2019 (brown).

Defying the Paris Agreement 

Under the Paris Agreement, countries have united to adopt nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which incorporate efforts by each member country to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. However, a recent report found that the current NDC ambitions need to be tripled for emission reductions to be in line with the 2°C target. Despite these numerous and hard-hitting warnings, global CO​2 emissions from fossil fuels are continuing to grow by over 1% annually and 2% in 2018, reaching an all-time high. China’s emissions are expected to rise about 3% this year.

In 2015, in an attempt to curb the growth of coal production and usage, the Chinese national government tried to clamp down on new-build coal. However, it continued to allow provincial governments the freedom to permit new coal plants. This resulted in local authorities permitting up to five times more coal plants. 

China’s economy grew 6% in the third quarter of 2019 compared with a year earlier, its slowest pace in 30 years. The Financial Times argues that this revived push for coal is driven by two main economic factors, namely that Chinese energy companies are desperate to gain market share and local governments still view coal plants as a source of jobs and investment, especially in regions like Shanxi, which relies on the fuel for half of its jobs and 80% of its energy. 

The nation commands half of the world’s coal-power capacity, with some plants only operating half of the time, creating the opportunity for their use to grow quickly. It is vital that both the long-term economic and environmental impacts of this coal rush be considered further. 

According to the Global Energy Monitor’s report, the way to do this lies with the Chinese government. It argues that existing policies discouraging coal plant building should be strengthened, such as reducing guaranteed operating hours and rates of return for new coal plants, and incentivising low-carbon power over coal. 

China is still the leading investor in renewable energy globally, so sticking to this message is crucial for meeting the Paris Agreement targets and mitigating the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. 

However, China is adamant that coal is part of its long-term vision, explicitly defying the Paris Agreement. “We continue to work hard to advance the fight against climate change, but we are indeed facing multiple challenges such as developing the economy, improving people’s livelihoods, eliminating poverty and controlling pollution,” said Zhao Yingmin, China’s Vice Minister of Ecology and Environment at a recent briefing. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Hand-picked stories once a fortnight. We promise, no spam!

Instagram @earthorg Follow Us