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Coal Reduction in China a Long Struggle, Not a Great Leap

Richard Martin — May 2, 2014

For years, air pollution in Beijing was considered a minor annoyance by Chinese citizens and foreign residents, something to be put up with and joked about, akin to Hong Kong’s fogs, Bangkok’s traffic jams, and Jakarta’s monsoons.  It was part of the cost of getting in on the China boom.

In the last year, that has changed.  Partly as a result of the airpocalypse in September 2013 that made Beijingers virtual prisoners in their apartments, air pollution is now recognized as a deadly threat and a serious impediment to continued economic growth.  At the Coaltrans conference in Shanghai in early April, more than one executive told me that expatriates have begun to flee the Chinese capital for Hong Kong, Singapore, or their home countries.  “You can’t pay people enough to live in Beijing anymore,” was a common remark.

The Chinese government responded with an ambitious plan to reduce air pollution specifically by curbing coal consumption.  The world’s largest consumer of coal, China burns nearly as much coal every year as the rest of the world combined.  This matters not just to inhabitants of China’s coastal metropolises, but also to the world: “China’s coal consumption has become the single most significant determinant for the future of the world’s climate,” wrote Greenpeace in an April report.  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world does; if China can’t control its rampant coal burning, our chances of  limiting catastrophic global warming are virtually nil.

Hurrah, Maybe

That’s why the government’s plan has been met with cautious applause from climate researchers and environmentalists.  The plan called, for the first time, for specific coal consumption targets in China’s provinces.  So far, 12 of China’s 34 provinces have pledged to implement absolute coal consumption targets, and six have said they will reduce their coal use by 2017, with greater Beijing cutting coal use by 50% in the next 3 years.  If successful, these measures could reduce CO2 emissions by 700 million tons (MT) in 2017, according to the Greenpeace report, The End of China’s Coal Boom, and 1,300 MT in 2020 – an amount equal to total emissions from Canada and Australia combined.

That would be a huge victory.  Unfortunately, it’s unlikely.  For one thing, the provinces pledging to reduce coal use are mostly strung along China’s east coast, and they do not include the major coal-producing regions of Shanxi, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.  The other part of China’s plan for its coal industry is to move power plants closer to the mines of the interior, creating enormous coal clusters where power plants will burn coal to make electricity and send it, via massive ultra high-voltage transmission lines, to the cities of the coast.  The coal clusters will also include coal-to-liquid and coal-to-gas plants, chemical factories, cement plants, and other heavy industry, along with coal cities for workers.  (This report from Inside Climate News provides a detailed look at China’s coal bases.)  This plan will most likely increase the country’s overall coal use, not reduce it.

Not Enough Nukes

What’s more, China’s demand for power is certain to keep growing in the next decade.  That power has to come from somewhere.  According to a new report from consultancy Wood Mackenzie, the majority is still going to come from coal over the next 2 decades.

China’s central government has set a goal of increasing the country’s nuclear power capacity from 14.6 gigawatts (GW) in 2013 to 200 GW by 2030.  While the nuclear industry in China will make significant progress, the 200 GW target is unreachable, says Wood Mackenzie; 175 GW is more plausible.  The pace of nuclear technology development, a lack of skilled personnel, a shortage of uranium fuel fabrication capacity, and public opposition will all slow nuclear progress.

The result?  Power generation from coal will still account for 64% of China’s supply in 2030, close to the current figure.  That view counters the encouraging trends in certain provinces.

“China’s coal story,” says Gavin Thompson, chief of Asia Pacific gas and power research for Wood Mackenzie, “is far from over.”

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