The biggest carbon emitter added coal-fired capacity in 2020, offsetting declines elsewhere

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LAST YEAR was a bad one for coal in much of the world. As countries went into lockdown, demand for energy plummeted. With many workers obliged to stay at home, and financing for coal projects proving ever more difficult, the development and construction of coal-fired power plants stalled. There was one bright spot, however. According to a report published this week by Global Energy Monitor, an American NGO, China commissioned 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of coal-power plants in 2020. This boost in global coal-fired capacity means that, although the rest of the world idled 37.8GW of coal plants, total capacity actually increased last year for the first time since 2015.

China’s affinity for coal, the biggest source of greenhouse gases, may be surprising given the country’s recent pledge to cut emissions to net-zero by 2060. There are, however, other mitigating factors. Local government officials, whose performance is often measured against targets for economic growth, have long used infrastructure projects—especially coal plants—to inflate their GDP figures. In 2020, when China was one of the few countries in the world to register any growth, three-quarters of the coal-fired capacity approved for construction was sponsored by local governments and firms. Regulators did not get in their way. China’s National Energy Administration gave several provinces the nod to approve new coal power plants.

But just because China has commissioned more coal-fired capacity does not mean that it will use it. Because so many coal plants are built to serve economic targets rather than energy needs, the country has a glut of around 400GW of excess coal-fired capacity. The average thermal power plant in China generates only about 50% of its total capacity. This means that, although China accounted for three-quarters of the world’s new coal plants in 2020, it produced just half of the world’s coal-fired power.

Still, if the world is to reach the goal of the Paris agreement, of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2100, coal will have to be phased out soon. Last year China was the only country to move further away from the conditions needed to meet the 1.5°C target, although OECD and non-OECD countries alike still have a long way to go (see chart). China’s 14th Five Year Plan, released on March 5th, sets a target of increasing the share of non-fossil energy consumption from 16% in 2020 to 20% in 2025. Although detailed targets for coal consumption will be released later this year, such a modest goal suggests that the energy overhaul needed for China to meet its Paris climate commitments is still a long way off.

China is not the only country still clinging to coal. Joe Biden, America’s president, has called for his country’s power sector to be decarbonised by 2035. But on current trends, only one-third of America’s coal-fired power capacity will have been retired by then. Germany, India and Japan all commissioned a net increase in coal plants in 2020. But China is the land of big numbers, and in ending the world’s dependence on coal it will be China that matters most.