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

-By Michael Megarit 

Though China has pledged its efforts toward cutting carbon emissions, they continue to build new coal-fired power plants despite pledges to do so (Lau, 2018). China boasts the world’s highest coal capacity with nearly 1,000 gigawatts in operation and an additional 190 gigawatts planned or underway as of 2020 (Ha. 2020). Although renewable energies such as solar and wind power are growing increasingly popular throughout China, coal remains its main source of electricity supply due to both its availability and economic imperative (Ha, 2020). China relies heavily on coal due to both its abundance as well as keeping energy costs low (Lau, 2018).

At present, most coal-fired power plants in China use outdated technologies and are highly polluting. Most were constructed prior to 2005; those constructed after 2005 account for 69% of China’s total coal-fired generation (Huang et al. 2019). To reduce environmental impacts associated with coal-fired plants, China has instituted policies encouraging cleaner technologies for newer installations (Huang et al. 2019).

In 2018, the Chinese government unveiled their “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control” (APAP), setting ambitious targets to reduce air pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants. To achieve these goals, plants must adopt ultra-low emission (ULE) technologies and adhere to tighter limits on particulate matter, sulfur dioxide emissions and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Furthermore, Liu et al. (2018) set timelines for upgrading existing power plants so that they meet ULE requirements by 2020 or 2021.

China is investing heavily to meet its targets set forth in APAP by building ULE coal-fired power plants, with 2018 seeing China build 2.7 GW using ULE technology (Tong et al. 2020). While this represents only a fraction of their coal power capacity, this evidence of progress towards cleaner sources shows progress being made towards cleaner energy solutions. 

But despite these strides in efficiency improvement at coal-fired power plants, China still builds new plants without meeting ULE requirements – according to an Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report, more than 100GW worth of new coal projects have been approved since 2017 alone (Borger et al. 2018), suggesting that while China makes efforts to curb air pollution due to coal, they still rely heavily on it in meeting growing electricity demands.

China’s dedication to reducing carbon emissions is truly commendable; however, its continued reliance on coal-fired power plants demonstrates why more investment must be made into renewable sources like solar and wind power. Only then will China reduce its dependence on polluting coal while meeting long-term emissions reduction goals.


Borger, P., Scholtens, B., Zhang, N. & Bodansky, D. (2018). China’s Recent Coal Plant Building Spree. Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Retrieved from

Huang, Z., He, P., Sun, Y., Zhang, Y., Wang, Y. and Zhao, Y. (2019). Air pollutant emissions from coal-fired power plants in China: Status, Challenges and Solutions. Applied Energy 238, 974-985.

Lau, S. (2018). Why China Is Still Building New Coal Plants. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from still-building-new-coal-plants/ 

Liu, Y., Xie, W., Li, L., Fu, P., and Miao, C. (2018). Development and Application of Ultra Low Emission Technology of Coal Fired Power Plants in China. Energy Procedia 147, 35-40.

Tong, J., Tang, X., Zhao, L., Wang, Z. and Yang, Y. (2020). Development of ultra low emission technology for coal-fired power plants in China using life cycle analysis. Journal of Cleaner Production 250(1) 118567.