November 17, 2022 - Chinese delegates created a stir at the ongoing COP 27 climate conference this week by informing news media present of its plans to continue expanding its already massive fleet of coal-fired power plants. Promising to continue its efforts to advance the growth of wind and solar power simultaneously, the Chinese officials told Bloomberg that the planned new coal plants are part of an effort to beef up the country’s energy security.
Interestingly, the Chinese delegates pointed to the largely self-inflicted and growing energy crisis spreading across Europe as an example of what their government is hoping to avoid in its own efforts to affect a gradual transition to a lower-carbon energy mix. China’s communist regime obviously understands that energy security is one of the most crucial components of national security, a lesson some European governments, like Germany’s, forgot by intentionally placing their societies in a position of dependency on Russia for oil and natural gas needs as they attempted to prematurely subsidize a transition into reality.
As fellow Forbes contributor Robert Bryce detailed in a piece in late October, even the German government is now quietly conceding the need to lean on fossil fuels in its desperation to keep homes heated and lights on during the coming winter. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in October plans to reactivate five coal-fired power plants which burn lignite, a low-quality form of coal that produces inordinately high levels of emissions. As part of that effort, the government also ironically sanctioned the dismantling of a wind farm to facilitate the expansion of one of the country’s largest lignite mines. This is probably not a bit of energy policy that Mr. Scholz and his delegation are highlighting at the COP 27 conference.
The Chinese officials were quick to try to downplay the scale of their own coal expansion plans, characterizing them as a short-term “Band-Aid” and reiterating their own longer-term carbon reduction goals. But, as Bloomberg notes, the 270 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity China plans to build in the coming years would vastly exceed the entire fleets of the biggest other coal-using countries. If fully realized, the additions would give China a coal-fired power plant fleet six times the size of current U.S. capacity.
Wang Yi, an ecological economist and standing member of China’s state congress, told reporters that the plans for coal expansion are part of his government’s attempt to build a unified national electricity market. “We must build up renewable capacity first, then we can reduce fossil fuels down,” he said. “But this is only one aspect. Things like energy storage and power market reform also matter, all of which are moving forward in a coordinated way.”
After declines in both 2019 and 2020, global coal usage rebounded strongly in 2021. In a report issued in July, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that the burning of coal would reach new record highs in 2022 as well, exceeding 2021 by .7% to exceed 8 billion tonnes.
IEA Global Coal consumption by year
China’s massive ongoing coal ambitions come at a time when governments in the western world are taking increasingly dramatic actions to limit their own usage of fossil fuels, arguably harming their own energy security status in the process. Such goals also stand in stark contrast to the dramatically alarmist opening message delivered at COP 27 by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who warned delegates that of the need for dramatic action if climate disaster is to be avoided.
“We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing,” Sec. Guterres said. “Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing, global temperatures keep rising, and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible...We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
Given its plans for massive additional coal expansion, this “highway to hell” narrative has seemingly been lost on China’s government. In fairness, Chinese officials are simply behaving as many other national governments are currently doing, placing national security and energy security interests above global climate goals. It’s a natural impulse that no amount of alarmist rhetoric can hope to change.