One major obstacle to China’s new climate goals: its thousands of new coal plants

China is building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants in spite of its new climate goals.
China is building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants in spite of its new climate goals.
Image: JASON LEE/Reuters
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China dropped a climate bombshell Tuesday, when president Xi Jinping announced at the United Nations the country will aim to cut its net carbon footprint to zero by 2060.

China is single-handedly responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so if it meets this goal—plus an older one of having its emissions peak by 2030—there would be huge ramifications for global warming. A new analysis by Carbon Action Tracker, a nonprofit research group, found that if China succeeds the global temperature in 2100 could be up to 11% lower compared to the current trajectory.

Reaching this goal will require a tectonic shift in the country’s energy system, including a near-universal switch to electric vehicles, the installation of huge amounts of zero-carbon energy like solar and nuclear, and likely some amount of “negative emissions”—such as reforestation and carbon-sucking machines—to offset lingering emissions from airplanes, steel factories, and other sources that are difficult to fully decarbonize.

One big part of this shift may prove particularly tricky: The country’s fleet of coal-fired power plants is relatively young. In the US, the average age of a coal plant is 39 years, which is pushing the typical lifespan of these facilities. In China it’s just 14, and because of the sheer number that have been built in recent years, newer plants account for the lion’s share of the sector’s emissions even though they tend to be more individually efficient than their ancestors.

Many of these plants will naturally retire before 2060. But in the short term, China is still moving full steam ahead on coal—its post-Covid stimulus spending on fossil fuels is three times larger than its spending on clean energy, including nearly $25 billion on coal power plants and even more on mining and processing. Plants rolling out today, plus the hundreds planned for the years before 2030, may be forced to close ahead of schedule—the new target was short on details but more could be forthcoming in the next country’s next five-year plan. Early retirements of power plants significantly undermine their profit potential—which is part of the reason investors and construction companies are fleeing the coal business.