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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

China could miss its key climate commitments


Coal cargoes at Port Bayuquan, China Photo: Adobe Stock
Coal cargoes at Port Bayuquan, China – increasing coal demand and rising investment in coal power are putting China at risk of missing its key climate targets

Photo: Adobe Stock

China is badly off track to meet climate targets the country set for 2025, as a result of an increase in coal use and investment in coal power, and a rise in oil consumption, which led to a 5.2% increase in energy sector CO2 emissions in 2023, suggests new analysis.

According to the analysis published by Carbon Brief, based on a report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and Global Energy Monitor, rapid electricity demand growth of 5.7% and a series of droughts that impacted hydropower generation boosted demand for coal power by 6% in 2023, compared to 2022, while the rebound from the COVD-19 pandemic boosted demand for oil, which rose by 8%.


This led to a 12% increase in China’s CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2023, meaning CO2 emissions would need to fall by 4–6% by 2025 to meet the target of cutting China’s carbon intensity – its CO2 emissions per unit of economic output – by 18% during its 14th five-year plan period.  


However, the analysis suggests it is more likely that China’s CO2 emissions will peak before 2025 – far earlier than its target of peaking ‘before 2030’.


The clean energy manufacturing boom also had a role in driving emissions, due to energy-intensive processes involved in the production of solar PV and batteries in particular, notes the Carbon Brief analysis. However, it also suggests that the increase in manufacturing will result in a significant reduction in emissions in net terms once the products are in use. About half of this reduction will be realised outside China, as the products are exported.


China is also at risk of missing other key climate targets for 2025, notes the study, including pledges to ‘strictly limit’ coal demand growth and ‘strictly control’ new coal power capacity as outlined in its updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, as well as targets to reduce carbon intensity by 2025 and increase the share of renewable energy sources to 25% by 2030.


In addition, the country’s five-year plans set targets of increasing the share of non-fossil energy sources to 20% by 2025 and deriving more than 50% of the increase in energy use from 2020 to 2025 overall from renewable sources – goals the country is not on track to meet, suggests the analysis.  


The deadline for peaking CO2 emissions has led officials and industries to pursue rapid emissions growth and carbon-intensive projects, while a window to do so remains open, calling for stronger controls on such projects as well as faster renewables deployment, according to the report.


Coal approvals continue

The report from CREA and Global Energy Monitor also shows that China approved at least 106 GW of coal power capacity and started construction on 70 GW in 2023, ‘accelerating further the frantic pace of permitting seen in 2022, the equivalent of two new coal power plants per week, as well as starting construction on one new plant per week’. China also commissioned 47 GW of coal-fired capacity and announced 108 GW in new projects in 2023.


Indeed, despite its 2021 pledge to ‘strictly control’ new coal power, the report says that Chinese approvals of new coal power plants increased fourfold over 2022 and 2023, compared with the previous five-year period between 2016 and 2020.


Since the beginning of 2022, an estimated 218 GW of new coal power plants have been permitted; with some 89 GW of this capacity having already started construction as of the end of 2023, and a further 128 GW yet to break ground.


Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst, CREA, notes: ‘The Chinese government has taken pride in reliably meeting or exceeding its earlier climate commitments. However, the energy- and carbon-intensive mode of economic growth during and after zero-COVID has put the country badly off track to its current targets, threatening to undermine China’s credibility. Yet, the record-breaking expansion of clean energy and electricity storage in 2023 provides an opportunity to reverse course.’


However, Flora Champenois, research analyst with Global Energy Monitor, warns: ‘China’s ongoing coal plant permitting and construction boom continues to be at odds with President Xi’s pledge to strictly control new coal power projects, and out of step with the rest of the world. Overbuilding coal “just in case” and with a “we’ll deal with that later” approach is a costly and risky gamble, especially when alternative solutions are available to meet targets and address energy security.’