More renewables, more coal: Where are China’s emissions really headed?

(China Dialogue, 3 Apr 2023) China’s emissions will peak when clean energy growth overtakes energy demand growth. This may happen in 2024, writes Lauri Myllyvirta.

At first glance, recent headlines on coal, energy and emissions in China make little sense. Coal-fired power generation grew slightly, by 1.4%, in 2022, and output in the other major coal-using sectors, steel and cement, contracted. However, the government is reporting a major increase in coal use, of 4.3%.

Clean energy installations made records, but the permitting of new coal-fired power plants also surged.

In its 2023 workplan, the government is aiming to further increase domestic coal production to support energy security, while according to the current Five Year Plan for energy (2021–25), coal is supposed to move from the mainstay of the energy system to a supporting role, and coal consumption is supposed to start falling in the 2026–30 period.

There are both real and apparent contradictions between these headlines.

Did China’s coal consumption increase in 2022?

The 4.3% increase in coal consumption and 2.2% increase in energy sector CO2 emissions in 2022 reported by China’s National Statistics Bureau are very hard to square with what we know about activity in China’s main coal-consuming sectors. This would also be the first time in almost 20 years that coal consumption increased faster than GDP, which clocked 3% growth.

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China Dialogue, 3 Apr 2023: More renewables, more coal: Where are China’s emissions really headed?