No China Coal Peak in Sight: Carbon Capture Will be Necessary to Tame Emissions in this Century

In late 2014, China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, and achieve 20% of its primary energy from non-fossil energy sources. And China continues to lead the world in annual additions of wind and solar power. While these developments are to be celebrated, there remains a sobering reality: they still leave a lot of headroom for China to expand its coal power plant capacity between now and 2030, even though its coal fleet is already more than twice the size of the US coal fleet.


Source: CATF from China National Energy Administration website for GW, accessed 17 February 2014. Assumed capacity factors: fossil (58% per IEA WEO 2013); hydro (34% per IEA WEO 2013); wind (33%); solar (15%).

As you can see from the chart, despite additions of substantial wind, solar, and nuclear capacity, when properly adjusted for capacity factor (the amount of annual energy produced per unit of capacity) to reflect production capability, the amount of new coal energy added to the China grid last year exceeded new solar energy by 17 times, new wind energy by more than 4 times, and even new hydro by more than 3 times. And, despite having more than 30 new nuclear reactors under construction, China’s new nuclear capability was still a fraction of new coal energy.

[At first blush, this data seems to contradict recent reports that total China coal use fell in 2014 for the first time by about 2.5%. However, the two trends are not inconsistent. Half of China coal use is outside of the power sector, especially in heavy industry, which has reduced its coal use as exports fell in 2014 and government policies to remove subsidies from heavy industry took hold. Second, overall demand growth in the power sector reached a decade low but is expected to resume. Finally, 2014 was an exceptional hydro output year for China. The short-term blip does not undermine the general trend of continued upward trend in coal deployment in China’s power sector, which represents a growing share of China’s energy use].

Unfortunately for climate, these China 2014 coal additions – which in one year alone were double the size of the United Kingdom’s entire legacy coal fleet – will be around and cranking away for many decades, along with the rest of China’s coal fleet, most of which is less than 15 years old. Indeed, these plants can continue to pump CO2 out well into the second half of this century even with China’s pledged 2030 CO2 peak. And once in the atmosphere, those CO2 emissions will be warming the planet for many centuries to come.

The implications are clear for climate. In addition to rapidly increasing China’s adoption of non-fossil power sources such as renewables and nuclear, to mitigate long-lived CO2 emissions, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) must be applied to both new and existing China plants, both coal and gas. Full commercial scale projects in Canada and the US demonstrate that CCS is not a science project but is here today and works. But, as with all low carbon energy sources, we need to bring CCS costs down over time to accelerate deployment. That will require a steady commitment to early demonstration, commercialization and cost reductions through scaled deployment of CCS, as the world did for renewable energy. As several recent international reports suggest, without such an effort, we have little chance of successfully managing climate change in this century, or beyond.

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