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China generated half world's coal power in 2020

March 30, 2021

A new report shows China was the only G20 country to see a significant jump in coal production last year. At the same time, European nations are shuttering coal plants at record rates.

Coal power plant near a floating solar farm in Huainan, Anhui province, China
China is planning to become carbon neutral by 2060Image: Getty Images/K. Frayer

China generated over 53% of the world's total coal-fired power in 2020, according to data published by the energy and climate research group Ember on Monday.

That's an increase of nine percentage points since 2015.

China was the only G20 nation to see a significant jump in coal-fired generation, the London-based group's "2021 Global Electricity Review" showed. 

This was despite China adding record amounts of renewables to its electricity grid in the last year alone. Ember's data showed the nation bringing on 71.7 gigawatts (GW) of wind power and 48.2 GW of solar in 2020.

Solar panels in the desert
China is building the largest solar power plant in the world in Xitieshan town, Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous PrefectureImage: dpa/picture alliance

Coal power sees record drop worldwide

The think-tank's study also found that power generated from coal, the most polluting of all energy sources, fell by a record amount around the world from 2019 to 2020.

But this decline was mostly due to lockdowns and other measures introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19,  stifling electricity demand.

Despite the growth of renewable energy systems, emission rates were still higher in 2020 than in 2015, according to the analysis. 

Supersized wind turbines

Can China meet its climate targets?

Earlier this year, China boldly promised to reduce its dependence on coal and bring emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gas to a peak before 2030. The country is aiming to become "carbon neutral" by 2060.

"China is like a big ship, and it takes time to turn in another direction," said Muyi Yang, senior analyst with Ember and one of the report's authors.

Chinese wind turbines
China added a record amount of wind and solar energy in 2020Image: Zhang Zhiwei/Zoonar/picture alliance

But despite adding clean energy at rapid rates, China has been unable to find enough to meet a growing increase in demand. Data showed that renewables met only half of China's power consumption growth last year.

Instead new coal-fired power installations reached 38.4 GW in 2020. That's more than three times the amount built by the rest of the world, according to an earlier research report by Ember.

Offshore wind farm off the coast of Blackpool, Britain.
Europe has dropped coal and added wind faster than anywhere else on EarthImage: Phil Noble/REUTERS

China also approved 46.1 GW of new coal-fired projects last year, more than the previous three years combined. 

Ember's report credited China with slashing the share of coal in its total energy consumption from around 70% a decade ago to 56.8% last year. However, coal generation volumes still rose 19% over the 2016-2020 period, the group calculated.

In its 2021-2025 five-year plan, China vowed to "rationally control the scale and pace of development in the construction of coal-fired power," said Yang, adding that tougher measures could follow.

"I think there will be a cap on coal consumption, and that will have a major impact on the future trajectory for coal power," he said.

Sheep among solar panels in Germany
Sheep graze between solar panels on land owned by the Saarbruecken airport in southwestern Germany.Image: wildlife/picture alliance

Are the UK and Europe making energy progress?

As China added both fossil and renewable-based capacity last year, Europe, led by the UK, dropped coal faster than any other region worldwide.

According to the Ember data, the UK made faster progress on cleaning up its energy than any other G20 country from 2015 to 2020.

The country now ranks second in the G20, behind Germany, for the greatest proportion of electricity generated from both wind and solar. Last year, nearly a quarter of the UK's electricty came from wind turbines – making the country the leader among the G20 for share of power sourced from wind, Ember's analysis found.

However, Britain is still lagging behind when it comes to natural gas, according to the group. Ember's data showed the country sourced 37% of its electricity from fossil gas in 2020, placing it ninth in the G20 and above the global average of 23%.

"It's crazy how much wind has grown in the UK and how much it has offset coal, and how it's starting to eat at gas," Dave Jones, Ember's global lead analyst, told The Independent newspaper.

Offshore wind turbine being constructed in the Baltic Sea near the German island of Rugen.
Germany and much of Europe have turned to offshore wind to power their futures.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

Is renewable uptake happening fast enough?

Ember's study, which analyzes electricity data from every nation, noted that the world's power sector emissions were still 2% higher in 2020 than in 2015 – the year that countries agreed to slash their greenhouse gas pollution as part of the Paris Agreement.

"As electricity demand resumes and increases, the world will need to do a lot more to ensure coal keeps falling," said Jones.

"With coal use already rising in 2021 across China, India and the US, it's clear the big step-up is yet to happen," he added.

mb/nm (Reuters, AFP)