China issues 210 coal plant licences despite pollution woes

Plants approved because of ecomomy’s emphasis on infrastructure investments

China issued 210 licences for new coal-fired power plants last year despite the central government repeatedly sounding the alarm on overcapacity, Greenpeace said.

Coal-fired power plants are generally blamed as one of the chief reasons for China’s dire pollution problems. However, power companies are investing in these facilities because so much of the economy is built on investment in infrastructure such as power plants.

According to Greenpeace projections, the yearly CO2 emissions from the 210 projects would be equal to 8 per cent of China’s current emissions, or to the total energy-related emissions of Argentina and Brazil.

The rate at which coal-fired power plants are being approved by provincial governments was dramatically higher than in 2014.


“Warnings about China’s overcapacity crisis are coming in left, right and centre, and yet the rate at which new coal power plants are being approved is increasing,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace’s senior global campaigner on coal.

China’s coal output fell in 2014 after 15 years of consecutive growth, but coal still makes up 66 per cent of the country’s energy consumption. This week, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced cuts of nearly 2 million jobs in steel production and coal mining.

“These plants do nothing but fuel the overcapacity crisis and add huge debt burdens. It is a trend which must be halted immediately,” said Mr Myllyvirta.

China’s environmental record remains woeful, although there have been some improvements.

Last month, data from Greenpeace India showed that the levels of the most harmful fine particulates, PM2.5 (Particulate Matter up to 2.5 micrometres in size), have fallen by 17 per cent in China between 2010 and 2015, while in India they have expanded by 13 per cent.

A joint investigation by Greenpeace East Asia and CoalSwarm found that at least 66 coal fired power projects with at least 73 gigawatts of capacity already entered construction in 2015.

Coal consumption is falling in China, and there has been significant increases in power generation from hydropower, wind, solar, nuclear and gas, along with slower overall power consumption growth.

Greenpeace East Asia has called on the Chinese government to include a binding national coal consumption cap in the upcoming 13th Five Year Plan. The plan will be formulated at the National People’s Congress this week to consolidate China’s shift away from coal.

“Money which could be invested into speeding up China’s shift to renewable energy sources is instead being recklessly thrown into the dying, dirty coal industry,” said Mr Myllyvirta.

The toxic particulate emissions from the projects would be larger than the emissions from all the cars in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing