The last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have marked a major shift in Chinese climate policy. The country announced it would no longer fund coal power projects abroad, and also said it would aim to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. COP26 saw China and the US issue a joint statement affirming their commitment to climate action over the next decade, while China has also worked hard to present itself as a champion of developing countries. 

However, words are one thing, actions another. Data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows the country continues to burn evermore coal to drive its economic growth, which was around 8% in 2021. China’s coal consumption rose 4.6% in 2021, the strongest growth rate recorded in a decade

A coal-fired power station on the edge of Beijing. (Photo by DuKai/Getty Images)

The country also started building 33GW of new coal-fired power generation in 2021, according to research from Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air – the most since 2016. Overall, Chinese CO2 emissions grew 4% last year, meaning they now stand at 5.5% above pre-pandemic (2019) levels. 

Data from GlobalData, Energy Monitor‘s parent company, shows just how significant a force China’s coal power industry remains. Some 82 power plants have become active or partially active over the past five years. A further 39 are under construction, while 18 more have been announced or are awaiting permits. 

The 18 awaiting permits may struggle to get off the ground, though. On 28 February, China's National Energy Administration (NEA) said it will “in principle not [permit] the construction of any new coal power plants designed exclusively for electricity generation”, reported China specialist news outlet China Dialogue.

The NEA’s announcement comes at a time of financial difficulties for coal generators, added China Dialogue, due to the ongoing energy crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushing up coal prices to historic highs.

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However, the new policy leaves space for new facilities that would co-generate power and heat, and also permits the construction of new plants that would be used “to a certain extent”. In practice, this means coal peaker plants to help maintain grid stability will still be permitted. Energy consultant Liu Hongqiao points out that it is notable that China has not announced any absolute caps on coal, energy consumption or emissions.