Will China Ever Be Able To Kick Coal?

Lambert here: Let’s hope so!

By Haley Zaremba, a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features. Originally published at OilPrice.com.

  • China accounted for nearly half of the world’s renewable energy investment in 2022, far exceeding the US and EU, but also greenlit most of the world’s new coal plants.
  • China’s pursuit of renewable energy appears to be driven more by securing its energy supply and achieving geopolitical influence than by goals of decarbonization.
  • Despite its heavy investment in renewables, China’s reliance on coal remains high due to its perceived reliability and concerns over the potential economic and political instability that could arise from phasing out coal.

While China crushes the competition in terms of clean energy spending, the country is also almost single-handedly keeping the global coal industry alive and well. The story of China’s renewable revolution has always taken place against the backdrop of a severe and persevering reliance on coal. This is by design. China’s place at the helm of global renewable energy expansion has never been about decarbonization – it’s about energy security. Renewable energy in China is not poised to displace coal, but is being developed in tandem as another source of energy production to add to the energy mix to try to produce sufficient supply in a country where energy demand is virtually insatiable.

Last year, China alone was responsible for nearly half of global spending in the renewable energy sector in 2022, at a whopping $546 billion. That’s nearly four times the $141 billion that the U.S. spent. The European Union came in second place, at $180 billion, according to figures from a recent BloombergNEF analysis. The International Energy Agency projects that China’s spending on renewable energy will average nearly $250 billion a year between 2021 and the end of 2023, which is approximately as much as every rich nation combined. And China shows no sign of slowing down. China is expected to install 154 gigawatts of solar panels in 2023, accounting for nearly half the global total (344GW), as well as to produce more than half of the global share of wind power brought online between now and 2030. 

Beijing is also reaping major benefits from its dominant positioning in global renewable supply chains. China’s solar panel supply chain is so enormous that it’s already approaching the scale needed for the world to hit net zero, but, again, these gains seem to be more motivated by political influence and energy security than any lofty decarbonization goals. China has made itself indispensable in global clean energy markets, and with that comes a lot of leverage. Being the King of Green will give increasing returns as more of the world tries to decarbonize in coming years.

But China isn’t just the King of Green, it’s also the planet’s biggest champion of coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel. lmost all of the coal plants greenlit last year were in China, and Beijing’s current pace of new coal-fired power plant approval is currently trending upward, and is now at its highest level since 2016. “The world’s coal consumption would have peaked in 2018 were it not for the additional 862 million tons of annual production China has added since — a pile of solid fuel equivalent to every ton burned in the US and European Union, put together,” Bloomberg reported earlier this month. 

Indeed, China has the ability to make or break the world’s ability to meet global climate goals and emissions targets. China has the second biggest economy in the world (second only to the United States), but it is the world’s single largest greenhouse gas emitter. In order for the world to reach global decarbonization pledges, China will not only have to continue its green energy spending spree, it will also have to phase out its coal sector. This will not be easy. 

Coal is synonymous with energy security in China. Time and time again when other forms of power have failed, coal has been a stalwart fallback. Just this year, as drought has majorly stressed China’s massive hydropower sector, the coal sector has stepped up production to keep the lights on. Coal is not just deeply embedded in China’s energy security strategy, it’s also a symbol of reliability and safety in the cultural conscience. Quitting coal isn’t just difficult for China – it’s deeply scary. According to Joanna Lewis, an associate professor of energy and environment at Georgetown University, China fears that dropping coal as an energy source would lead to elevated risk of economic and political instability. “I think there’s this fear of moving away from the status quo and into this new realm of clean and advanced energy technologies, even though they’re extremely well positioned to do so,” she was quoted by Popular Science last year.  

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. upstater

    This gets back to the problems of reliable base load, intermittancy of PV and wind and the enormous expense of energy storage. Without orders-of-magnitude increases of much cheaper storage, the problem of reliable base load is unsolved.

    Finger pointing at China also ignores the hypocrisy of the G7 countries, where fossil generation continues to boom. In the US coal’s share of generation has been only been reduced by cheaper fracked gas and less costly CCGT generation. The 48 inch Mountain Valley pipeline will soon be completed to lock in Virginia and the Carolinas to fracked gas as a primary energy source for generations to come; this pattern has been repeated throughout the US.

    Only look at Europe or Japan to see how coal has been embraced for energy security in the wake of Ukraine/Russia and Fukushima. If fracked gas wasn’t so cheap and abundant the US would be constructing coal plants, too.

  2. MicaT

    Yes well said.

    I read that Russia/China are building gas pipelines to supply China with gas. I don’t know what the time line is. And will it replace coal plants or just be new additional power plants?

    And then there the studies that say the whole NG being so much better than coal isn’t all that correct due to all the leaks of methane.
    Hard to know what data to trust.

    1. Phil R

      BEIJING, July 17 (Reuters) – A remote township in China’s arid northwest…

      They really had to scour the temperature records to find that one.

    2. Phil R

      From the article:

      Temperatures at Sanbao township in Xinjiang’s Turpan Depression…

      From wikipedia:

      The Turpan Depression or Turfan Depression, is a fault-bounded trough located around and south of the city-oasis of Turpan, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far Western China, about 150 kilometres (93 mi) southeast of the regional capital Ürümqi. It includes Lake Ayding, −154 metres (−505 ft), the second or third lowest depression on Earth.[1] By some measures, it is also the hottest and driest area in China during the summer.

      My bolds. Not sure this temperature record is representative of anything other than a headline for a slow news day.

      1. Alice X

        Well, July 2023 is now said to be the hottest month on record. The fuel for the climate change deniers’ campfires is going up in smoke.

      2. some guy

        Well . . . . if there is a history of temperature records for the Turfan Depression going back enough decades to give us something to measure against, then we could compare this particular temperature against past temperatures in the Turfan Depression area and see if it record-breaking for the Turfan Depression itself, or not.

    1. some guy

      James Hansen the NASA atmospheric scientist agrees with that. I semi-recently skimmed his book Storms Of My Grandchildren, and in the middle of that book was a couple of pages where he writes about how massive rollout of nuclear power is the only way to aggressively exterminate the thermal coal industry and thermal coal steamplants at this point.

      He begins those two pages with a disclaimer about how when it comes to nuclear engineering, he is just a layman doing the best he can, just like the rest of us. Then he offers all the detail he can on what he knows about “kinder gentler” forms of nuclear power which are possible, plausible and feasible. I can’t remember it in enough detail to reprise it here. Its all there in his book Storms Of My Grandchildren.

      He along with others was written about in a Scientific American article on that subject.

      Here is an article from Grist on that same general subject.

  3. The Rev Kev

    By the sounds of it, they are risk adverse and will not move out of coal unless there is something reliable to replace it with. So for example, they will not say something stupid like ‘In two years all cars must be EVs and no internal combustion engine cars will be allowed on the road’ – and then cross their fingers that the electrical grid will be able to cope as well as the transportation network. Too many government officials have science and engineering backgrounds for that sort of thinking. Unless there is a solid, proven path out of coal, they will wait until there is a way to do it. It is not good but it is what it is.

    1. heresy101

      Europe, California, and China are phasing out ICE vehicles by separate dates. In China it is the 6B emissions rule that will come into effect next January after being introduced in 2016. Most ICE cars can’t meet this regulation and there are 3,000,000 of them stored or exported because they can’t be sold. Most of these cars are legacy manufacturers that risk going broke because they hardly make EVs. Both Jeep and Mitsubishi have left China’s 33% of the world’s vehicle market.

  4. marcel

    Perhaps China has been reading TheOilDrum when that was still a blog?
    They ran an article many years ago, saying that “the world” would need to consume a big extra amount of fossil fuels to build the new infrastructure (PV, solar, networking, hydro, ..) that would deliver enough of clean energy to allow the shutdown of fossil fuel systems.
    The author was questioning whether the world could deliver all that extra fossil fuel (peak-oil was still a thing then) required to rebuild society.
    So perhaps China is still using lots of coal, to build the nuclear, solar, hydro infrastructure that will power their country tomorrow?

  5. PlutoniumKun

    This is very overstated.

    What China is doing is building more capacity, but its not actually using more coal – all indications are that coal use is in significant decline.

    The difference between China’s grid and most other advanced economies is that they lack legacy capacity. Most advanced countries have a large number of mothballed or semi-mothballed thermal plants they can call upon in an emergency. China lacks this due to the speed of its growth.

    Its pretty clear from Xi’s statements and the recent plans that China is going all in on renewables with some nuclear, but is also using coal as a backup. They will be built but will only be run for part of the year, if at all – just like most older thermal plants in the west or Japan, etc. They are building a security back up, not expanding coal use.

    1. WestCountry


      Very important point you are raising here. We all know bloomberg and similar outlets are really not all that accurate in the claims they make, particularly around China, so there’s that.

      I used to obsessively listen to the China-Africa Project podcast on Soundcloud (think it’s been renamed, maybe something like the China-Global South podcast or something?) and they have had several episodes over the years discussing how Western outlets frequently scare-monger (not that I am necessarily accusing this article of doing that btw) about the ever-increasing number of coal power plants in China. Quite often, the interviewed researcher/journalist/expert would reveal their frustration with these talking points and state that often Bloomberg (or whoever) had gotten their data completely wrong and actually it was talking about expanding capacity, or about a record increase in the number of issued permits to build coal-fired power plants, but that these plants often wouldn’t be built due to cost or regulatory hurdles further down the road. I’m sure readers of this blog more than anywhere appreciate the incredible complexity of actually getting a coal power plant built from the scoping, financing, permitting and other regulation, through to actual construction, let alone that power plant actually burning real, existing coal.

      Apologies for this stream of consciousness, it’s been a long morning

      short version is that the only valid way of tracking burning coal is surely actually tracking burning coal!

    2. Es sCetera

      The piece doesn’t really answer the question the headline (title?) poses, but I think you’ve answered it for us.

    3. Mikel

      Security backup. Sounds like China has the right idea as far as that is concerned.
      They know the vultures have been circling them for centuries.

    4. Bazarov

      IEA says that China coal consumption for power generation in 2018 was 1576 mtce, higher than the prior peak at 1447 mtce.

      The same link has a projection out to 2024, which puts China’s coal-power consumption for that year at 1714 mtce. That’s an increase of nearly 8% over 2018 if the projections hold.

      Use of coal for cooking will fall from from 609 mtce in 2013 to 544 (projected) in 2024. The projected number, however, is higher than the 2018 actual (536 mtce).

      Steam coal not used for power generation has fallen quite a bit from 879 mtce to 552 mtce (2024 projected).

      So coal use is down, as both non-power steam and cooking coal will together decline by 422 mtce from their peaks, while power-generating coal is projected to rise 138 mtce.

      Overall coal use, according to IEA projections, looks to be on the downswing in China by about 284 mtce. However, within that fall, there is a concerning rise in its use for power generation.

      As demand for coal declines, we can expect its price to follow likewise. Will that help spur consumption as it becomes cheaper than the alternatives? For instance, might coal use for cooking rise if it becomes rather affordable to cook with coal in China? Of course, I air these question without taking into account the Chinese regulatory environment, which for all I know may discourage certain kinds of coal use.

      1. Bazarov

        Woops, the total decline of coal use from non-power steam and cooking should read 392 mtce, not 422!

        That means downswing is 254 mtce, not 284 mtce.

        Still: a rather big decline overall.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        mtce figures can be a little deceptive, as what really matters is the calorific content of the coal, and this seems to have dropped significantly in China over the past few years as the highest quality coal reserves seem to have peaked.

        This was exacerbated by the ill-considered boycott of Australian coal – Aussie coal is generally higher quality (lower ash, lower sulphur) than Chinese or Mongolian coal and is often mixed in to achieve the desired coal characteristics depending on the users – for industrial users in particular. The Chinese attempt to punish Australia with its boycott blew up in its face when it realised belatedly that coal is not necessarily a fungible product. China needs high quality coal, not just coal in quality.

        Given the peculiarities of the past few years in China economically, its very unwise to draw too many conclusions on long term trends, but i think its likely that coal use is entering long term decline in use in China, as much through supply issues as anything else, but it will continue to be very important – probably more so for industrial use and heating than electricity consumption.

        A much overlooked issue about coal use in China is that it is very water intensive, both for extraction and for use in thermal plants, and China is deeply concerned about inland water stresses with climate change. This is one reason favouring renewables in China – solar and wind as electricity sources are far more robust in the face of water stresses than coal, or nuclear for that matter. But China – as much through sheer scale as anything else – has the luxury of being able to hedge its bets by investing in a wide range of supply sources.

  6. spud

    its simply a stunning number: 20% of all carbon emissions world wide has been traced to free trade

    “If you look at just the shipping involved in international trade, it’s something of the order of 20%, I think, of our carbon production comes out of the entire mechanics of shipping goods around the planet. And we realize we’ve massively overshot the capacity of the biosphere to support our industrial sedentary civilization. So, one way to reduce that is by reducing international trade.”

    “That’s the problem with having more imports than exports. And once you begin to borrow dollars, you have to pay interest on it. And all of a sudden, they’re running a deficit, it’s going to reduce your foreign exchange rates. Well, let’s look at what’s going to happen this summer as an example. We know that energy prices, oil prices are going way up.

    Well, at the same time, there’s an enormous deficit of debt service that they owe to finance all of the trade deficits that they’ve been running ever since they followed neoliberal ideals to open their markets to depend on foreign food and basically US manufacturers. The Federal Reserve has just begun to raise interest rates.

    Well, we’re getting something for nothing. If you import more than you export, you’re running up foreign debt, and you’re becoming more and more dependent on foreign countries who are acting in their own interests, not your own interests. So you have to put this whole discussion in the political context.’


    1. some guy

      Well then, “we” are not getting something for nothing. “We” are getting something for something else. “We” are getting foreign imports in return for losing American sovereignty and self-government and self-control of our own decision-making.

      Us who support Fair Trade against Free Trade can only get Fair Trade if Us can win a civil war against Them who support Free Trade against Fair Trade. This civil war would involve conquering the US government to make it Us’s government to use against Them and their Free Trade. If it could be achieved without having to physically exterminate several million of Them in order to exterminate Them’s existence from government, academe, think tankistan and every other place where public culture-power and goverpower is excercised, that would be nice.

      If Us could conquer the government and the country and make it exclusively Us’s, and not in the least bit Them’s anymore at all, then Us could impose the Fair Trade policies needed to re-shore all our own civilization-survival production at less carbon emission per output than what China and India and etc. plan to keep doing for decades to come. We could also ban and abolish enough actual physical trade altogether to reduce the carbon skydumping which trade itself causes.

  7. Susan the other

    Energy security. That’s gotta be a much bigger problem in China than in any other country. They will soon be mainlining energy from Russia via a pipeline so maybe coal is just to bridge that gap. But there is extra stress on China to maintain trade with Russia and not get cut off from sources of coal in Australia, I assume. This entire Ukraine “war” has had the feel of a test case: “let’s see what China does about energy if we sanction this or that.” And we’ve now seen how advanced Russian military equipment is and how much they must import, etc. We, on the other hand, have kept the war going for no discernible gain unless as a garage sale for all our old equipment. I’m sure the Pentagon has learned volumes. And Zelensky has been humiliated beyond belief. If this is true, it seems we haven’t yet learned all we wanted to, so keeping the war going is still the plan, otherwise WTF? – it is a terrible waste and destruction. And pollution, as only the military can do. So because of our disregard of global climate problems, I feel like this article is disingenuous or vacuous because it should be making the larger point.

    1. some guy

      About the Russia-Ukraine war, “we” ( as in “America” ) are not the only country with agency here. Russia also has agency, and if Russia sees that keeping the war just non-finished enough that Ukraine can keep fighting and dying and depleting, then Russia may well use its own possession of its own agency to make decisions to decide to do just that.

  8. ArvidMartensen

    I assume these days that whatever China is doing re its energy infrastructure, its major goal is to build up it’s military to stop the takeover of China by the US. Which is now a public US plan.

    That needs huge amounts of power to build weapons, planes, drones, ships, satellites and satellite delivery systems. Whatever their military says will be needed.
    And also a lot of power to build up and run their electronic capabilities in terms of designing and building the military equipment and comms equipment.
    And then there’s the power needed to wage cyber war, cyber sabotage.

    I imagine that greening the grid will come second to survival as an independent nation.

    As Putin said, what use is the world if Russia isn’t in it?
    I imagine the Chinese leaders think the same way.

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