Skip to content

Is China’s Use Of Coal Really Declining?

Professor David Campbell, Lancaster University Law School

There has been no departure from China’s policy of expansion of coal-fired generation capacity, and the rate of installation continues at the astronomical rates.

An episode of the BBC Radio 4 Costing the Earth programme broadcast on 11 May and repeated on 12 May enthusiastically described the extremely vigorous growth of the Chinese solar energy industry which has made it the largest such industry in the world. The programme concluded that this growth was an important part of developments that undermined what was pejoratively labelled the ‘China excuse’ for western countries not to adopt very demanding emissions reductions targets, the excuse being that the size of Chinese emissions made those targets pointless. Far from China’s emissions and projected emissions making such targets pointless, this growth was changing China’s energy mix in a way that would so reduce China’s emissions as to allow western reductions to succeed. In particular, ‘China’s coal consumption’, it was claimed, is ‘now declining’.

Unless placed in the context of China’s overall economic growth plans, and consequently its future energy generation and emissions, this claim is extremely misleading. It was incompatible with the BBC’s mission to inform to broadcast this claim without placing it in any such context, save the, by itself misleading, comparison with renewables and, principally, solar.

Although any balanced discussion should acknowledge that the relevant statistics are particularly contentious, it is justifiable to claim that China’s coal consumption has declined, not merely by (rounding up) 4% in 2015 but also by 3% in 2014. But these figures do not follow from a Chinese policy to reduce energy consumption but from the unplanned decline in the rate of growth of the Chinese economy over this time, from previously 10% to 7%. Nevertheless, the recent arguments about a ‘new normal’ after ‘peak coal’ which were behind the claim made by Costing the Earth have seized on these 3% and 4% figures because showing a decline in coal is essential in order to reject the China excuse.

A rational planning authority will not, of course, continue to install capacity if it will not be utilised, and there is some (difficult) recent evidence of a slowing down of the rate of installation, and (less difficult) evidence of a considerable growth of under-utilised capacity. However, there has been no departure from China’s policy of expansion of coal-fired generation capacity, and the rate of installation continues at the astronomical rates. China was responsible for 80% of the entire world’s increase in coal consumption this century and now consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Coal-fired capacity has increased by 10% since 2013, and in 2015 approval was given for 155 new coal plants which themselves will have a capacity more than twice Germany’s entire capacity.

Though currently under-utilised, it is of course anticipated that this capacity will come on stream, part of the current Five Year Plan that proposes to pursue growth rates of 6.5% which, though a reduction on the previous 10% rate, is double or treble the best western rates. Such slowing down in consumption and installation is not evidence of peak coal but of the Chinese authorities trying to tailor growth in coal to the current slowdown in Chinese growth overall. This is not an absolute slowing down but a marginal slowing down in an overall absolute increase. To understand the position, one has to put these developments in the context of China’s energy mix, in which there is indeed planned to be a shift to renewables.

Chinese power generation is overwhelmingly dominated by fossil fuels, which accounts for 90% of capacity, coal itself accounting for 67%. Renewables account for the remainder, with this 10% being dominated by the 8% of hydro. Nuclear is 1%, solar and wind 1%. It is obvious from these facts that the great growth in solar is possible only because the growth starts from a very small base, though such is the absolute size of the Chinese economy that this tiny fraction of its capacity is very large by comparison to other countries’ solar industries. Even leaving aside the question of how much the Chinese renewables industry is directed towards export, it is equally obvious that even the current great growth in solar can have only a small marginal impact on the Chinese energy mix. It is justifiable to claim that China plans to raise the share of renewables in the energy mix to 20% by 2030, of which solar will provide a small fraction, and to cap coal at less than 62.5%. But it is preposterous to claim that this represents a movement from coal to solar that has any real significance for global emissions.

In brief, the planned shift in the energy mix cannot possibly represent peak coal because it is part of a plan to absolutely increase coal-fired generation. Yet again, the concept of carbon intensity is causing dreadful confusion. Even if this shift (and the installation of new fossil fuel plant) lowers carbon intensity, this will be brought about, not in reversal of, but in the course of continued growth in Chinese power generation and therefore of coal-fired generation. There is simply no possibility, other an unforeseen economic catastrophe or a technological miracle, that Chinese coal consumption will not grow by absolute amounts that are astronomical by western standards, and to a concomitant rise in emissions.

It is unfortunately necessary in light of the Costing the Earth’s claim to underline the general points which should be obvious. China has a population of 1.3 billion, ie a billion more than the population of the US and approaching a billion more than the EU. China’s great achievement in poverty relief since 1979 has so far largely been confined to its major coastal cities. In its hinterland, there are approaching a billion people living on US$5/day, half of these on US$2.50. This poverty by western standards is reflected in per capita energy consumption, despite the urban prosperity, being 50% of that of western Europe and 25% of the US. Further relief of the poverty of this enormous number of people will involve absolute economic growth, growth in absolute energy generation, growth in absolute coal-fired generation, and therefore growth in emissions that are, I apologise for using the word again but one searches for a similarly accurate one, astronomical by western standards.

China’s strategic target, restated in its statement to the UNFCCC Secretariat of its Independent Nationally Determined Contribution, is to create ‘a moderately prosperous society’. Under the current Five Year Plan, this is to involve doubling 2010 gdp and per capita income by 2020, which will be made possible by a concomitant increase in power generation, with 2010 energy consumption expected to double by 2030. Even accepting that the share of renewables in the energy mix will double and that of coal decrease by 5%, elementary arithmetic shows that coal-fired generation will itself almost absolutely double. Let us give overall power generation the value of 100, of which 90 is fossil fuels (67 coal) and 10 is renewables, and then add another 100, of which 20 is renewables and therefore 80 is fossil fuel (62.5 coal). The shift to renewables has but the smallest impact on an absolute growth of fossil fuels to 170 and coal to 129.5.

To say that the significance of these basic facts for the nature of the world energy economy and for global emissions is altered in any but the smallest way by the 3% and 4% figures relied on in the peak coal argument is utterly misleading. It is surely highly significant that Costing the Earth’s claim that coal is declining was made in a discussion of developments wholly internal to the Chinese energy mix. These developments were not related at all to the reduction in global emissions necessary to make climate change policy have a significant positive global effect, and this is for the good reason that there cannot possibly be any such effect. Accepting the most optimistic forecasts of a shift from coal to renewables, there will still be an immense absolute growth in Chinese emissions, and so in absolute global, emissions. For the BBC to broadcast a claim that the recent decline in Chinese coal consumption means that the China excuse no longer holds without any consideration of any of this vital context is a disgrace.

It remains only to add that nothing has been said here about the position of India, which in 2014 overtook the US as the world’s second largest coal consumer.

Dr David Campbell is Professor of Law at Lancaster University Law School