China’s provinces are secretly building coal plants in defiance of the national government

Breaking the addiction.
Breaking the addiction.
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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Local governments in China are battling the central government to build more coal power plants, even as the country struggles to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Between 2014 and 2016, China’s provincial authorities issued a spree of permits for the construction of new coal power plants, totaling some 259 gigawatts of coal-energy capacity (pdf)—roughly equal the entire current US coal fleet. Then China’s national government said “not so fast,” and issued a series of orders in 2016 and 2017 to stop or delay the construction of more than 150 planned plants, comprising nearly 57 GW of energy capacity. A new report suggests many are being built anyway. 

CoalSwarm, a global network of researchers tracking fossil-fuel infrastructure, analyzed satellite imagery as of July 2018, and discovered that the construction of around half of those 150 plants is still proceeding, despite the government orders.

This will make it exceedingly difficult for China to meet the climate goals it agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement (pdf), and prevent what according to climate scientists would be a dangerous 2°C rise in global temperatures over preindustrial levels. The International Energy Agency estimates China must shutter all its coal plants without carbon capture and storage by 2045 for the world to have a real chance at avoiding catastrophic global warming.

Half the world’s coal power plant capacity is in China, and the country has been using coal plants as a way to goose economic growth and investment at the provincial level. On average, one large coal plant per week has come online since 2016 thanks to guaranteed financing, cheap state credit, and permissive provincial authorities. “It’s difficult to persuade the local governments to give up on them,” Lin Boqiang, director of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University, told the New York Times (paywall). 

A series of suspension orders by China’s National Energy Administration between 2016 and 2017 seem to have had limited effect. In 2017, plans to cancel or slow construction on 151 planned or underway coal projects were announced. But in many cases, the rules were ignored entirely, and in others, construction plans were simply “delayed” until after 2017. 

See new construction on restricted coal power plants in the time-lapse satellite imagery below.

Huadian Nanxiong power station

Huaneng Daba-4 power station

Tianyuan Manganese power station

Zhoukou Longda power station