China accounted for two-thirds of new global coal plant capacity in 2023, report finds

Environment

Chinese flag on a background of coal.
Andrzej Rostek | Istock | Getty Images

The world added more coal power capacity last year than any year since 2016, with China driving most growth and future planned capacity, according to new research. 

A report by Global Energy Monitor released Thursday found that net annual coal capacity grew by 48.4 GW, representing a 2% year-over-year increase. China alone accounted for about two-thirds of new coal plant capacity. 

Other countries that brought new coal plants online included Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Korea, Greece and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, other countries such as the U.S. and U.K., slowed their rate of plant closures, with only about 22.1 GW retired last year — the smallest amount since 2011. 

The authors of the GEM report recommended countries commit to shutting down coal plants at a faster pace, and for nations like China to adopt stricter controls on the development and usage of new plants. 

“Otherwise we can forget about meeting our goals in the Paris agreement and reaping the benefits that a swift transition to clean energy will bring,” said Flora Champenois, a Global Energy Monitor analyst. 

The Paris Climate agreement, signed by most global governments in 2015, set long-term goals for substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions, caused by fossil fuels like coal. Coal power capacity, however, continues to steadily grow.

China has separately set a goal of reaching net-zero by 2060. President Xi Jinping said in 2021 that China would ”strictly control coal consumption” up to 2025 and “phase down coal consumption” thereafter. 

Yet, according to data from GEM, China started construction on 70.2 GW of new coal-power capacity last year, nearly 20 times as much as the rest of the world’s 3.7 GW. The country also only retired about 3.7 GW of its coal capacity in 2023.

Despite this, GEM said that with “immediate and determined action,” China can still meet its climate targets, including a goal set by the National Energy Administration in 2022 to retire 30 GW of coal power by 2025. 

While low retirement rates contributed to coal’s blockbuster 2023, they are expected to accelerate in the U.S. and Europe, according to the report. That could offset some of the new capacity in China.

“Coal’s fortunes this year are an anomaly, as all signs point to reversing course from this accelerated expansion,” said Champenois. 

Green energy addition, not transition?

While China has been a major coal user, accounting for more than half of consumption since 2011, it also helped expand global renewable energy capacity. 

According to a report from the IEA, global renewable capacity additions increased by almost 50% to nearly 510 GW in 2023, the fastest growth rate in two decades. 

“While the increases in renewable capacity in Europe, the United States and Brazil hit all-time highs, China’s acceleration was extraordinary,” the report said. 

China commissioned as much solar capacity as the entire world did in 2022, while wind additions also soared 66% year-on-year, the IEA said. 

However, experts have argued that China’s rapid economic growth, combined with the unreliable and intermittent nature of renewable energy sources has kept coal as a critical fallback option for the manufacturing focused economy. 

China also ranks among the top five countries in terms of global coal reserves, but not other, less pollutant options like oil and natural gas, according to Rob Thummel, managing director at energy value chain investment company Tortoise. 

“In China, coal is the largest domestic energy resource, so China continues to tap it in order to maintain energy security,” Thummel added.

The IEA estimates that all global coal generation needs to cease by 2040 to limit temperature rises within the key threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to GEM, meeting this 2040 phase-out goal would require an average of 126 GW in coal plant capacity to be shutdown annually for the next 17 years — equivalent to about two coal plants per week. 

The required cuts are even deeper when accounting for the 578 GW of coal capacity under construction and in pre-construction, it added. As per GEM’s data, global coal capacity retirements still have not ever outpaced additions. 

The EU’s climate change monitoring service said on Tuesday that the world experienced its warmest March on record, marking the tenth month in a row of new temperature records. 

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