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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Will China Ever Be Able To Kick Coal?

  • China accounted for nearly half of the world's renewable energy investment in 2022, far exceeding the US and EU, but also greenlit most of the world's new coal plants.
  • China's pursuit of renewable energy appears to be driven more by securing its energy supply and achieving geopolitical influence than by goals of decarbonization.
  • Despite its heavy investment in renewables, China's reliance on coal remains high due to its perceived reliability and concerns over the potential economic and political instability that could arise from phasing out coal.

While China crushes the competition in terms of clean energy spending, the country is also almost single-handedly keeping the global coal industry alive and well. The story of China’s renewable revolution has always taken place against the backdrop of a severe and persevering reliance on coal. This is by design. China’s place at the helm of global renewable energy expansion has never been about decarbonization – it’s about energy security. Renewable energy in China is not poised to displace coal, but is being developed in tandem as another source of energy production to add to the energy mix to try to produce sufficient supply in a country where energy demand is virtually insatiable.

Last year, China alone was responsible for nearly half of global spending in the renewable energy sector in 2022, at a whopping $546 billion. That’s nearly four times the $141 billion that the U.S. spent. The European Union came in second place, at $180 billion, according to figures from a recent BloombergNEF analysis. The International Energy Agency projects that China’s spending on renewable energy will average nearly $250 billion a year between 2021 and the end of 2023, which is approximately as much as every rich nation combined. And China shows no sign of slowing down. China is expected to install 154 gigawatts of solar panels in 2023, accounting for nearly half the global total (344GW), as well as to produce more than half of the global share of wind power brought online between now and 2030. 

Beijing is also reaping major benefits from its dominant positioning in global renewable supply chains. China’s solar panel supply chain is so enormous that it’s already approaching the scale needed for the world to hit net zero, but, again, these gains seem to be more motivated by political influence and energy security than any lofty decarbonization goals. China has made itself indispensable in global clean energy markets, and with that comes a lot of leverage. Being the King of Green will give increasing returns as more of the world tries to decarbonize in coming years.

But China isn’t just the King of Green, it’s also the planet’s biggest champion of coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel. lmost all of the coal plants greenlit last year were in China, and Beijing’s current pace of new coal-fired power plant approval is currently trending upward, and is now at its highest level since 2016. “The world’s coal consumption would have peaked in 2018 were it not for the additional 862 million tons of annual production China has added since — a pile of solid fuel equivalent to every ton burned in the US and European Union, put together,” Bloomberg reported earlier this month. 

Indeed, China has the ability to make or break the world’s ability to meet global climate goals and emissions targets. China has the second biggest economy in the world (second only to the United States), but it is the world’s single largest greenhouse gas emitter. In order for the world to reach global decarbonization pledges, China will not only have to continue its green energy spending spree, it will also have to phase out its coal sector. This will not be easy. 

Coal is synonymous with energy security in China. Time and time again when other forms of power have failed, coal has been a stalwart fallback. Just this year, as drought has majorly stressed China’s massive hydropower sector, the coal sector has stepped up production to keep the lights on. Coal is not just deeply embedded in China’s energy security strategy, it’s also a symbol of reliability and safety in the cultural conscience. Quitting coal isn’t just difficult for China – it’s deeply scary. According to Joanna Lewis, an associate professor of energy and environment at Georgetown University, China fears that dropping coal as an energy source would lead to elevated risk of economic and political instability. “I think there’s this fear of moving away from the status quo and into this new realm of clean and advanced energy technologies, even though they’re extremely well positioned to do so,” she was quoted by Popular Science last year.  

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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