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China and the future of coal: the big burning global climate question

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 18/11/2021 Echo Xie
Illustration: Perry Tse Illustration: Perry Tse

For much of the past few decades, China's growth has been powered by fossil fuels, particularly coal. While the economic gains have been vast and rapid, the toll on the environment has been huge. In the third of a four-part series, Echo Xie looks at the prospects for a new energy mix in China.

As the curtain came down on the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow on Saturday, there was still one big unanswered question.

Negotiators from about 200 countries accepted a new climate agreement that included cutting use of fossil fuels - a first for a global environment pact.

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But its pledge to speed up efforts on coal was reworded at the last minute from "phase out", as per previous drafts, to "phase down", at the insistence of China and India.

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Days earlier, a number of countries - including some of the world's top 15 coal users such as South Korea, Poland and Indonesia - agreed for the first time to stop building coal-fired power plants and start phasing out coal use this decade.

China, the world's largest coal producer and consumer, was not one of the signatories.

It was also not among the 30 or so countries including the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany, that signed on to end foreign financing of fossil fuels by the end of next year.

The burning question for the world now is just how willing is China to phase out coal in its energy mix?

Ending the use of coal was at the heart of the Glasgow summit and its efforts to limit increases in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is the threshold beyond which scientists say the world will experience more severe and extreme weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves and floods.

To meet the 1.5 degrees goal, countries need to stop building "unabated" coal plants and approving new oil and gas fields from this year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Unabated power plants are those that do not have carbon capture technology.

Wealthy countries should phase out unabated coal power by 2030 and all of the world's remaining unabated coal and oil power plants should be closed by 2040, the agency said.

"Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5 degrees goal," UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said in March.

More than 40 countries agreed to do just that, committing to stop building unabated coal-fired power plants and to transition away from unabated coal power generation in this decade for major economies and in the 2040s globally.

And the agreement struck on Saturday vowed to accelerate "efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies".

"The announcements may have taken some unpicking, but they really do represent a tipping point in efforts to consign coal to history," said Pauline Heinrichs, policy adviser with European climate change think tank E3G.

"Consigning coal to history is a process, not solvable in an instant."

Some of the world's biggest coal economies were notably absent from the agreement - apart from China, India, the United States and Australia also did not sign on.

China and India together account for roughly two-thirds of the world's coal consumption. Australia is the world's 11th biggest coal user and the second-largest coal exporter.

But whatever China does will have the biggest impact.

Coal accounts for 57 per cent of the country's energy consumption and generates over 70 per cent of its electricity. It also has over half of the world's operating coal-power generation and accounts for 55 per cent of the world's capacity in the pipeline.

The president of COP26, Alok Sharma, told the BBC on Sunday that China and India needed to "explain themselves" over Saturday's agreement to only "phase down" unabated coal power rather than phase it out.

In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that China had made efforts to control coal use, calling it "an incremental process" that should take account of "different national conditions, different development stages and resources".

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The country aims to start cutting its coal use from 2026 as part of its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, Christine Shearer, programme director for coal at the San Francisco-based Global Energy Monitor, said more action was needed now.

"The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear: coal use needs to decline 80 per cent by 2030 to hold global warming to 1.5C. Increasing coal consumption through 2026 only makes this already difficult goal more difficult if not impossible to achieve," Shearer said.

"For the sake of the Paris climate agreement and the planet, China should start decreasing coal consumption now, and stop building new coal plants."

Other experts said the turnaround would not be in the short term.

"The energy transition for developing countries is much harder than for developed countries," said Teng Fei, deputy director at the Energy Environment Economy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"It's because of the inertia in the energy system. Once the facilities are built up, including power plants, transport and other infrastructure, they have a long lifespan and it takes a long time to replace the older, high-carbon emission ones."

Teng said high-carbon infrastructure in developed countries had neared the end of their lifespans, bringing the transition date forward for those countries.

"The average age of a US coal plant is 40 years and many of them are still operating," he said.

"China's coal-fired power plants have been operating on average for 12 years but their operating lifespan is 30 years. It will take at least 20 years - until 2040 - to phase out them.

"Under this condition, China pledged to spend 30 years from peaking carbon emissions to achieve carbon neutrality, but the time span for the US is 45 years."

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Teng said demand for power in China was growing by about 400,000 gigawatt hours every year and non-fossil fuels could only meet half of the demand.

"The rest comes from fossil fuels," he said, adding that other developing countries faced a similar dilemma.

"China pledged to start reducing coal consumption from 2026 because from then its newly added power generation from non-fossil fuels can basically meet its increased electricity demand," he said.

Just two days before the end of the conference, China and the US issued a joint declaration announcing accelerated steps to phase out coal for power generation. While the US committed to a carbon-free power portfolio by 2035, China agreed to make the "best efforts" to realise its goal within this decade.

Leo Roberts, research manager for the coal transition team at E3G, said China's energy crisis over the last few months highlighted that access to coal did not guarantee energy security.

"Quite the opposite - an overreliance on coal is a major factor in the country's power crunch," he said.

With much of the conference focused on coal use, the consumption of oil and gas - which are also big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions - remained on the back burner.

Shearer said that for the past decade there had been a stronger push to phase out coal power rather than gas power, because coal had a bigger impact on air pollution and released more carbon dioxide when burned than gas.

The oil and gas industry also marketed gas as the transition bridge to a clean energy economy, and presented oil as necessary and without any alternatives, she said.

"The oil and gas industry has fought tooth and nail to delay any climate action on their industry for decades ... and is finally starting to lose that battle, although not fast enough," she said.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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