China’s Dilemma of Low Carbon Commitments and Coal-Fired Power Plant Development

-By Michael Megarit 


Despite China’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions, it is continuing to build new coal-fired power plants. China has the world’s largest coal power capacity, with almost 1,000 gigawatts in operation and another 190 gigawatts being planned or under construction in 2020 (Ha. 2020). Despite the growing focus on renewable energy in China, coal remains the dominant source of electricity in the country. The nation’s reliance on coal power is partly because of its abundance and the need to keep energy costs low to maintain its economic status (Lau. 2018).

Currently, most coal-fired power plants in China are built using outdated technologies and are highly polluting. These plants are primarily from the 2000s and some from the 1990s. The coal-fired power plants built after 2005 account for 69% of the nation’s total coal-fired power generation (Huang et al. 2019). The Chinese government has been attempting to reduce the environmental impacts of coal-fired power plants and has implemented policies to promote cleaner technologies.

In 2018, the Chinese government issued its “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control” (APAP), which targets reducing the level of air pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants. The APAP requires plants to adopt ultra-low emission (ULE) technologies and to abide by stricter limits on particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) (Liu et al. 2018). It also set deadlines for upgrading existing coal-fired power plants to meet the ULE requirements by 2020 and 2021.

In order to meet the targets set by the APAP, China is investing heavily in the development of ULE coal-fired power plants. In 2018, the country built 2.7 GW of new coal-fired units using ULE technologies (Tong et al. 2020). While this accounts for only a small fraction of China’s coal power capacity, it shows that the country is progressing towards cleaner energy sources.

However, despite the progress in improving the efficiency of coal-fired power plants, the country still continues to build new coal-fired power plants, including many that do not meet the ULE requirements. According to an Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report, China has approved more than 100 GW of new coal-fired power projects since 2017 (Borger et al. 2018). This suggests that while China is making efforts to reduce air pollution from coal, it is still relying on the fuel to meet its growing electricity needs.

Ultimately, China’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions is commendable. However, its continued reliance on coal-fired power plants highlights the need for the country to invest further in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.


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