China leads world in building coal plants as global project pipeline shrinks, study finds

A drone image showing ships transporting coal on the Grand Canal in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, China, on Dec 9, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Global coal power plant capacity under development declined in 2021, but China is still leading the world in building new coal plants, challenging its climate pledges, a major annual survey released on Tuesday (April 26) showed.

Global Energy Monitor's (GEM) eighth annual survey of the world's coal plant pipeline found that total coal power capacity under development declined 13 per cent last year.

But the world still has more than 2,400 coal plants belching out large amounts of air pollution, including carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas driving climate change.

Burning coal is the single largest source of CO2 and climate scientists say ending coal use is vital if the world is to succeed in reducing the threat from the climate crisis.

A total of 34 countries have proposed new coal plants, down from 41 countries in January 2021, the survey found.

China, the world's top greenhouse gas polluter, continued to lead all countries in domestic development of new coal plants, commissioning more new coal capacity in 2021 than the rest of the world combined.

China's coal consumption is meant to peak in 2025 or soon after and the government has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2060. But continued building of new plants risks locking in years of polluting emissions from what is already the world's largest assembly of coal power plants.

China has just over half the number of coal plants in the world and relies on them to generate about 60 per cent of its electricity.

"The power industry's plan, which appears to have [Chinese] government backing, at least for now, is for coal power capacity to increase until 2030. So new plants are adding more capacity, not just replacing retirements. Last year saw retirements, in fact, slow down," said Mr Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for research organisation Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which contributed to GEM's report.

He said coal power might take longer to peak because a key aspect of China's carbon neutrality plan was to replace direct fossil fuel use in industry, transport, buildings and other sectors with electricity.

China is also aiming to meet a growing share of its power needs with green energy via massive ongoing investment in renewables. But scaling that up will take time.

Outside China, coal plant numbers shrank for the fourth year in a row, although at a slower rate than in 2020, the analysis found.

By the end of 2021, a total of 176GW of coal capacity was under construction in 20 countries, which is slightly less than in 2020. China represented more than half (52 per cent) of that capacity, and countries in South Asia and South-east Asia made up a total of 37 per cent.

Ms Flora Champenois from GEM said: "The coal plant pipeline is shrinking, but there is simply no carbon budget left to be building new coal plants. We need to stop, now."

China now has 1,064GW of operating coal-fired capacity. Singapore's total power generation capacity is 12GW, in comparison, which is almost entirely from gas.

While the coal plant pipeline shrank last year, the capacity of operating plants grew by a net 18.2GW - an increase of about 1 per cent and reflecting a post-Covid-19 rebound in a year that saw a slowdown in coal plant retirements. The report found that the amount of electricity generated from coal rose by 9 per cent in 2021 to a record high.

The war in Ukraine has led some nations to delay coal plant retirements as they scramble for energy supplies to keep the lights on. This might temporarily set back global efforts to phase out coal, though soaring coal prices might also prompt some nations to speed up investment in green energy, analysts say.

Mr Myllyvirta told The Straits Times: "The world is experiencing a fossil fuel price shock, leading to overall reduced fossil fuel demand and accelerated plans for clean energy development.

"European countries, in particular, have announced very ambitious plans for clean energy and energy efficiency as a part of the effort to end reliance on fossil fuel imports from Russia. These factors will lower coal demand in the coming years."

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