Why Is China Still Building Coal-Fired Power Plants?

Last year, China’s central government said it would be reining in the coal-fired power industry, cancelling over 100 projects across the country to address pollution and limit the amount of energy produced via coal plants. New research from CoalSwarm reveals that promise was false: Construction has in fact continued on some of these plants, as satellite photography reveals.

China is facing a challenging energy situation: The rapidly industrializing country has a tremendous demand for electricity, and coal is extremely cheap and easy to bring online. It also, of course, carries a serious pollution load, with the nation struggling to address the serious quality of life implications of living in a country powered overwhelmingly by coal. China has mandated greater efficiency for new coal plants, for example, and it’s also banned the construction of new facilities in some sensitive areas. Part of that initiative also included a January 2017 mandate to cancel some new construction.

But it turns out that some of these projects kept right on going, with satellite imagery clearly showing significant construction over 2017 and into 2018. For “cancelled” plants, they’re looking suspiciously far along. It appears that the wave of regional permits that allowed these plants to move forward in the first place were only delayed, not actually halted.

According to CoalWatch, the production capacity of plants being brought online is nearly equal to that of those currently operating in the United States, and would represent a big increase in China’s energy derived from coal, the opposite of the country’s publicly-stated goals. Strikingly, CoalWatch reports that the country’s supply has actually outpaced demand at this point; there’s no need to go on a coal construction binge.

The mismatch between national and local priorities highlights a problem with big national initiatives in China, or anywhere else. If regional officials don’t buy in on a plan to reduce emissions or address another environmental or social target, there’s only so much the central government can do. This is true even in communities where having a coal-fired plant causes demonstrable problems for residents; short-sighted or indifferent officials may refuse to comply with a suspension order and allow a project to go up anyway.

Advocates for clean energy fear that the money being used to build new coal plants could go to better uses, like construction of wind and solar installations. Investing in building such facilities would help China meet climate goals, protect the health and welfare of the Chinese people, and establish the nation as a clean energy leader — most of the world relies on goods produced in China, and is therefore currently partly complicit in the explosion of coal plants.

These new facilities are cleaner burning than older plants in China’s existing coal fleet, but “at least it isn’t as bad as it could be” is hardly comforting. Clean energy technologies exist and could be pursued, but it looks like some Chinese officials are stubbornly clinging to what they know, rather than what will benefit the nation in the long run. With the Paris Agreement threatened and the scientific community warning that climate change is a runaway train, the globe needs to stop adding fuel to the fire with new coal plants. Now that it’s been caught out, will China take steps to meaningfully curb new construction?

Photo credit: michael davis-burchat/Creative Commons


Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer6 months ago

A challenging situation.

hELEN hEARFIELD6 months ago


Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O6 months ago

Ann W you have said my thoughts on this also....No matter how much the people are fighting the new coal mining and plants in Australia the Government just refuses to listen. How sad for the people living or should I say trying to live in China with all that health risk. Thanks for this article as I too believed that China was going to be doing something positive about the pollution.

Ann W
Ann W6 months ago

China and the United States stand condemned for their increase in coal fired power plants - beautiful clean coal as Trump refers to it - yet so does my country for being the largest coal exporting country in the world. Our politicians can smugly say that Australia's emissions are insignificant compared with the rest of the world but it is our coal that is contributing to their emissions. Shame on all of us.

Nicole H
Nicole Heindryckx6 months ago

We condemned Fuehrer TRUMPF for not signing the Paris Climate Agreement, and he boldly said that he would pump up more oil and would mine more coal for his industry. China is even worse !! They signed, but did just the opposite of what is written in this agreement. I wonder : what is the use that many European countries try to alter their energy from coal and oil and build more and more wind mills and whole parks of them in the North Sea, and convince people to use more solar panels, giving them a rebate on their costs. The polluted air produced by China & the U.S.A. is far more than the clean air we are trying to use more and more each year. Our government together with the national company for busses and trams are planning to make the city centers car free (except for good suppliers, doctors, etc..) and people could then come by car to an exchange point outside the city where you could either take a bike, against a very small price per kilometer, or take a bus or a tram. The pollution in our cities is mainly caused by extremely long traffic jams. During peak hours, it can easily take you 1 hour to go from North to East, and it is just abt. 6 /8 kilometers. That's totally absurd !

Carole R
Carole R6 months ago

That photo says it all.

Peggy B
Peggy B6 months ago

Wow. Quite a few stereotypical or/and racist comments about the Chinese today.

Peggy B
Peggy B6 months ago


Anne M
Anne M6 months ago

Can’t trust China, or anyone who lives there...

Loredana V
Loredana V6 months ago

Because they don't care a little. One of the worst Countries in the world