Coal-burning in China is in significant decline, according to official figures released on January 19, 2016, signaling a major turnaround for the world’s biggest polluter.
The new data is good news for the fight against climate change but bad for the struggling global coal industry.
China saw a huge increase in coal-burning for power and industry in the last two decades but has suffered serious air pollution as a result. However in recent years there has been a surge in low-carbon energy and a slowdown in the economy – GDP growth fell in 2015 to its lowest in 25 years – as China moves away from manufacturing.
The result is that global carbon emissions are set to continue the fall seen in 2015 for the first time outside of worldwide recessions, potentially for many years.
“This trend may continue for 3-5 years or even longer,” said Li Junfeng, director general at the National Climate Change Strategy Research and International Cooperation Centre, a thinktank close to China’s government. “Today’s figures are sending the strong signal of the clear acceleration of China’s energy transition. I think thermal [coal]power generation will continue to drop with an annual speed of 2-4% and the non-fossil power generation will stay in a high growth rate of 20%.”
Tim Buckley, at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said: “The implications of these changes are huge. China’s total emissions are on track to peak potentially a decade earlier than their official target of no later than 2030.
“This comes at the same time that the US has confirmed a 10% year-on-year decline in coal consumption in 2015, plus a three-year moratorium of new federal coal mine leases. That the largest economies globally are moving rapidly in concert to exceed the Paris [climate change]agreement sets a very positive scene for 2016.”
China’s coal use has fallen in 2015 across a wide range of measures and its national carbon emissions are likely to have fallen by about 3% as a result. There was a 3.5% drop in coal production, coal-fired electricity generation fell 2.8% and overall power generation dropped 0.2%, the first fall in 50 years. There were similar decreases in coal-intensive heavy industry such as iron, steel and cement.
Other recent developments were coal imports to China plummeting by 35% year-on-year in December 2015 and the government’s ban on new coal mines for three years.
In contrast, renewables investment in China hit an all-time high in 2015 at $110bn. Overall low-carbon electricity generation – hydro, wind, nuclear and solar – increased more than 20% in 2015.
“The growth of non-fossil-fuel power generation in China in the past few years is the largest deployment of renewable energy in history,” said Greenpeace’s Lauri Myllyvirta. “This has enabled China to cover a 20% increase in power demand from 2011 to 2015 with clean energy while reducing coal use in the power sector, an astounding achievement.”
Benjamin Sporton, chief executive at the World Coal Association, said: “The cyclical slowdown in economic growth in China is affecting all energy and commodity markets, including coal. Long-term forecasts however show that coal will remain the backbone of the Chinese electricity mix for decades to come and that China will remain the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal.”
He said the International Energy Agency expects coal demand in south-east Asia to grow at 4.6% a year through to 2040.
“Rather than focussing on short-term fluctuations and wishing coal away, it is important to focus on making sure coal is used in the cleanest way possible with high-efficiency low-emission plants using modern emission control technologies and working to develop carbon capture and storage,” Sporton said.
But Li said: “Coal production and consumption [in China]has entered into a turning point since 2014. Even if it bounces back in the future, it will not be big bounce.”
A series of major coal companies have gone bankrupt in recent years, as the international coal price fell by 60% since 2011. The second biggest coal miner in the US, Arch Coal, filed for bankruptcy last week. Investment bank Goldman Sachs declared in January 2015 that the fuel had reached “retirement age”.