Breaking China’s coal addiction

The southern Chinese province of Guangdong manufactures products for the whole world – from toothbrushes to DVD players, from shoes to cars. It is among the richest regions of China, yet lack of power generation has been a huge barrier to its economic growth, and until recently blackouts were common. Four years ago, Greenpeace China launched a pilot project called Wind Guangdong to promote wind power in the region and show that Chinese development could be powered by clean, renewable energy.

The wind industry did take off in Guangdong, as it has across the country. Over the past three years, China's wind generation capacity has grown by over 100 per cent per year and it is now the world’s third biggest user of wind power. China is soon expected to become the world’s biggest manufacturer of wind-energy equipment, and Greenpeace predicts that the country’s wind power capacity could reach 122 gigawatts (GW) – equivalent to the capacity of five Three Gorges Dams – by 2020.

Yet the success story of Chinese renewable energy is little known outside China. In addition to the growth of wind power, the performance of solar energy has also been spectacular. The country has already installed more solar heating systems than the rest of the world put together, and China is among the top three countries manufacturing solar photovoltaics. The Government aims to have 15 per cent of its total energy needs met by renewables within the next 12 years.

The Chinese are known for making things happen quickly. Unfortunately, this is also the case for its massive expansion of coal-fired plants. From 2004 to 2007, China built a total of 254GW of new coal-fired plants – about three times the total electricity capacity of Britain. The much-quoted soundbite that ‘one new coal power station is being built each week in China’ is sadly true, and the new plants have a far greater generation capacity than those they have been replacing. In 2007 the total capacity of the new builds was seven times that of the plants which were closed down.

Right now, coal accounts for over 70 per cent of China’s energy mix. The economy is still growing at a double-digit rate, but the reality of its enormous environmental impact makes it clear that China’s current carbon-intensive development model is unsustainable. The only solution is a combination of massive renewable energy uptake and huge energy efficiency improvements.

The majority of coal-fired plants in China are very inefficient, and an aggressive phasing-out plan is needed. Last year alone, China closed down over 550 coal-fired power generator units. The Government has promised to shut down a total of 50GW of smaller coal-fired plants by 2010.

Although China is still far from achieving a low-carbon development path, it is important to realize that it is both part of the problem and part of the solution. These unprecedented challenges offer unprecedented opportunities. If China fails to seize them, environmental disaster will follow. But if it succeeds, it will achieve not only a revolution in energy, but also a revolution in the history of human development. 

Ailun Yang
Climate and Energy Campaign Manager, Greenpeace China