After closing coal mines, Beijing is halting the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants. But is it too late?
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
The Chinese government is halting construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country, a major move that highlights the sudden and accelerating death throes of the fuel that powered the creation of the modern world.
Beijing’s decision to build fewer coal plants than planned is the latest blow to the prospects of coal, which alongside crude oil remains the globe’s most important energy source.
In the United States, which after China has the second-largest electricity sector, natural gas use in the power sector will surpass coal this year for the first time ever. In the United Kingdom, where coal launched the Industrial Revolution, Scotland this week shuttered its last coal plant; this month, England sealed off its very last coal mine. Huge coal companies like Peabody and Arch are tottering into bankruptcy, and major international banks are fleeing from coal projects in many countries. What initially began as a series of pinprick setbacks for coal in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, in other words, seems to be turning into a rout.
“In the United States, we’ve hit the point where coal is in a structural decline, and I think globally we are getting there as well,” said Maura Cowley, director of the international climate and clean energy campaign for the Sierra Club, the environmental group.
On Wednesday, Chinese media reported that government officials ordered the halt of more than 250 coal-fired power plants slated for construction in more than a dozen provinces. The measure will scupper planned power plants with a combined capacity of 170 gigawatts — or as much generation capacity as there is in all of Germany.
The move is part of China’s ongoing plan to cap the use of dirty energy like coal that has contributed to massive air pollution and, in turn, sparked major protests by a growing Chinese middle class. Late last year, China announced a freeze on opening new coal mines, and is closing thousands of smaller mines.
Other environmental concerns — such as the massive consumption of water by coal plants in water-stressed regions such as northern China — also played a role. As did economics: A burst of cleaner energy options in China, including renewable energy such as hydroelectric power, has made coal plants increasingly economically unviable. Many coal plants in the areas targeted by Beijing’s new order operate less than half the time.
And many of those same headwinds are working against coal in other parts of the world. A flood of cheap natural gas — rather than environmental regulations — is crippling coal’s future in the United States. International agreement to start tackling climate change, such as last year’s Paris climate accord, is pushing governments and companies around the world to focus on cleaner energy options.
Global investment in renewable energy like wind and solar power hit a record in 2015 of $286 billion, more than twice as much as was invested in coal- and gas-fired electricity projects, the United Nations Environment Program said Thursday. For the first time, renewable energy — not even counting big hydroelectric projects — made up more than half the new electricity-generating capacity in the world.
Meanwhile, huge gains in energy efficiency mean economies in both the rich world and the developing world are squeezing more growth out of less energy, making investments in huge, centralized power plants something of a black elephant.
Even so, coal’s not dead yet. It still accounts for the bulk of Chinese electricity generation, and will probably continue to do so for years, if not decades, to come, because power plants can operate for half a century. Even in Chinese provinces targeted by the new order, hundreds of coal plants will forge ahead, dismaying environmental campaigners. And halting the construction of newer, more efficient coal plants could paradoxically end up leaving older, dirtier coal plants operating for longer, said John Deutch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And coal’s future isn’t limited to China. India is massively expanding its electricity sector. Although India has very ambitious goals for solar power, the bulk of investment is headed for traditional coal-fired plants. Coal may have an even brighter future in Southeast Asia. The International Energy Agency recently forecast coal consumption there to soar by 2040, including the addition of as much coal-fired capacity as China is removing today. Even advanced economies like Japan have turned their backs to coal power — albeit with new, state-of-the-art plants — in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
From the point of view of limiting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, coal’s dimmer future prospects don’t do much to clean up those smokestacks today. Despite all the advances in clean energy, efficiency, and market shifts in recent years, the world is pumping 10 times more carbon into the atmosphere every year than at the time of one of the worst climate cataclysms in the geologic record, about 66 million years ago.
“There are plenty of headwinds for coal, but it doesn’t change the basic calculus of how much carbon we are emitting today,” MIT’s Deutch said. “The year 2100 is still going to be very painful.”
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