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China To Cap Coal Use By 2020 To Meet Game-Changing Climate, Air Pollution Targets

Miners shovel coal at a north China mine near a power plant and chemical factory.

Miners shovel coal at a north China mine near a power plant and chemical factory. CREDIT: AP/Oded Balilty

The Chinese government announced it would cap coal use by 2020. The Chinese State Council, or cabinet, said the peak would be 4.2 billion tonnes, a one-sixth increase over current consumption.

This is a staggering reversal of Chinese energy policy, which for two decades has been centered around building a coal plant or more a week. Now they’ll be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades, while the construction rate of new coal plants decelerates like a crash-test dummy.

The 2020 coal peak utterly refutes the GOP claim that China’s recent climate pledge “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” Indeed, independent analyses make clear a 2020 coal peak announcement was the inevitable outcome of China’s game-changing climate deal deal with the U.S. last week, where China agreed to peak its total carbon pollution emissions in 2030 — or earlier.

We already knew that China’s energy commitment to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030” was going to require a staggering rate of deployment for carbon free energy. It means adding some 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon power in 16 years, which, the White House notes, is “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

The CO2 and energy pledge together mean their energy revolution must start now and the planning for it must have started already, which it clearly has (a study from China’s National Coal Association earlier this year projected a 2020 coal peak). That’s because a CO2 peak in 2030 or (more likely) a few years earlier (see below), essentially required Chinese coal use to peak around 2020.

Why? Large-scale coal power generation already has multiple commercial carbon-free alternatives — solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on — but large-scale oil-based transportation has far fewer. Put another way, it is much less expensive for a still-developing country to peak coal use than it is to peak oil use — or natural gas use, for that matter, especially since some of the coal will be replaced with gas.

Indeed Tuesday, Reuters interviewed a leading Chinese energy expert about what China must do to meet CO2 and air pollution targets:

Su Ming, a researcher with the Energy Research Institute (ERI), run by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said while “peak coal” needed to come in 2020, industrialized eastern regions needed to start to cut consumption earlier if targets were to be met….

Beijing [province] alone would need to cut coal use by 99 percent to below 200,000 tonnes by 2030, ERI said.

A peak in coal use in 2020 is also what an analysis by MIT and Beijing’s Tsinghua University finds for a peak in total CO2 emissions sometime from 2025 to 2030. That analysis is a joint project between the MIT Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Tsinghua and MIT model three scenarios — No Policy, where emissions keep rising for decades Continued Effort, where CO2 plateaus around 2035, and Accelerated Effort, who CO2 peaks around 2025-2030.

Total Chinese CO2 emissions in 3 scenarios. Via

Total Chinese CO2 emissions in 3 scenarios. Via Tsinghua-MIT 2014.

These scenarios are slightly misnamed. Yes, the “No Policy” case “assumes no energy or climate policies are implemented from 2010 onwards” but, as in all scenarios “we assume that energy prices are determined by the market in future periods, representing a retreat from remaining controls on energy prices, specifically, prices for natural gas, gasoline, diesel, and electricity.” The historic lack of market prices has led to overconsumption of all forms of energy, so this case assumes significant energy pricing reforms.

The “Continued Effort” scenario assumes considerably more than just a continuation of recent efforts to expand carbon-free power. For instance, it requires requires a modest and slowly rising CO2 price (or its equivalent): “The CO2 charge that supports this goal reaches $26/ton CO2 in 2030 and $58/ton CO2 in 2050.”

Finally, in the Accelerated Effort case — the one closest to China’s new pledge — “the carbon tax rises from $38/ton CO2 in 2030 to $115/ton CO2″ in 2050, a very serious carbon charge, comparable to the one the U.S. will need to meet post-2025 targets needed to stabilize temperatures at non-catastrophic levels. This case also assumes “a higher resource tax on coal.” And so coal consumption peaks around 2020:

Chinese energy demand in 3 scenarios, with the primary energy mix shown for the Accelerated Effort scenario. Via

Chinese energy demand in 3 scenarios, with the primary energy mix shown for the Accelerated Effort scenario. Via Tsinghua-MIT 2014.

As an important caveat, all such projections of future energy demand and production by energy type are based on multiple assumptions, including the rate of technological progress. So different models show different results, and I will report on other studies as they are released. Based on my experience with and analysis of solar, wind, and other renewables (as well as historical trends toward high and rising nuclear plant construction costs), I suspect that China will, for instance, deploy vastly more solar power than is modeled here. That’s especially true when you include concentrated solar thermal power, which can easily be designed with low-cost storage.

Will the Chinese meet or even beat their target? Yes, for four reasons. First, as Obama senior adviser John Podesta explains on Charlie Rose (video here), it is very hard to get China to make such major public commitments, but once they do, they are all in.

Second, what the deniers and doubters don’t get is that climate change is going to get more and more painfully obvious in the coming years. Jump head to the early 2020s, and all the nations of the world, including China, will be close to desperate to make even deeper reductions. By the end of the 2020s, the entire world will be desperate. Moreover, Chinese leaders already accept and understand the reality of climate science more than most — that’s one reason they made such an unprecedented commitment to reverse decades of energy policy in the first place.

Third, China has a major public health and domestic political motivation to peak coal ASAP. Their urban air pollution levels are catastrophic. Su Ming told Reuters, “We are trying to tell provincial officials how much coal they could use under a restricted nationwide quota.” That would mean “the big consuming regions of Hebei, Tianjin and Shandong” would have to cut coal use by up to 27 percent by 2030.

The fourth reason the Chinese will meet — and likely beat — their CO2 commitment is that they know it can be done and that doing so will not only be critical to maintaining their political influence worldwide, but to their ongoing leadership in solar, wind, batteries, electric cars, and the other key job-creating industries of the future. That’s what their analysis shows, and that’s what other analyses show, such as the Tsinghua-MIT work.

Remember, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself joined Obama in the U.S.-China Joint Announcement that “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” Now why would China tell the whole world on the biggest stage imaginable it was going to “make best efforts to peak early” if they didn’t have confidence that they could and would peak before 2030? Failure to peak early would show the “best efforts” of the Chinese failed. That is not how China rolls!

Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress, told me this week:

Personally, I expect China can probably peak a bit earlier than 2030 with truly aggressive policy action, and the language in the joint announcement reflects that. My sense is that China’s current peak commitment is as far as they could feasibly go with the data they have in-hand as of now. As more data comes in and they near the end of the 12th five-year plan (2011-2015), they are likely to become even more ambitious. It is a very good thing that they left space for even more ambition on the peak.

BOTTOM LINE: China’s game-changing deal with the United States is already dramatically changing their energy policy and their emissions trajectory, as is clear from the 2020 coal cap. Also, it greatly boosts chances for a global climate deal and ensures the triumph of non-carbon energy, especially renewables, over fossil fuels, starting with coal. China has every incentive to beat their targets, and the smart money says they will.

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Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 28, 2014

Based on my experience with and analysis of solar, wind, and other renewables (as well as historical trends toward high and rising nuclear plant construction costs), I suspect that China will, for instance, deploy vastly more solar power than is modeled here.”

Laughing out loud! Despite China having the most ambitious and successfull nuclear program in the world today, Joseph Romm just couldn’t resist his habitual spurious dumping on nuclear power! Again! Very predictable!

But in Asia, nuclear power economics are not ruined by a broken regulatory regime and a propagandised anti-nuclear public sentiment. So China will not experience a ‘negative learning curve’ for nuclear. Nuclear power will supply almost half of non-hydro clean energy in China by 2020, and maintaining this nuclear expansion rate could see China phase-out coal entirely by 2040 without subsidies, much to the dismay of Joseph Romm, no doubt!


By way of contrast, China has stated that it expects its costs for plants under construction to come in at less than $2000/kW and that subsequent units should be in the range of $1600/kW. This estimate is for the AP1000 design, the same as used by EIA for the USA. This would mean that an AP1000 in the USA would cost about three times as much as the same plant built in China. Different labour rates in the two countries are only part of the explanation. Standardised design, numerous units being built, and increased localisation are all significant factors in China.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Nov 28, 2014

I can’t see any way that China (and other developing countries) can have the standard of living implied by that level of electricity consumption without ruining the planet. Never mind the coal, it implies hundreds of millions of air conditioners, washers, driers, televisions, lights, etc. all being manufactured from minerals dug up with oil-powered equipment and moved around with oil-powered trucks and ships. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 29, 2014

it is much less expensive for a still-developing country to peak coal use than it is to peak oil use

This is true using only the strategies which are easiest for the US: improvements vehicle fuel economy and EVs.  But developing nations like China and India also have cheap nuclear power, which opens up a new posibility: synfuel.

As discussed in this TEC article, power-to-fuel technology is being proposed as a use for otherwise unusable peaks in renewable electricity generation which temporarily exceed demand.  In this role, it struggles to be economical, due to the low capacity factor of the syn-fuel plant.

But once China’s growing nuclear industry is able to build plants faster than the electrical demand grows, they’ll be able to build nuclear plants which are dedicated to making fuel.  When this happens, they will no longer have to outbid wealthy nations to buy oil on the world market, and they won’t need to fight oil wars. 

Using domestic nuclear power to replace imported oil will be more attractive than using it to replace domestic coal (even though pollution considerations favor coal replacement).  The foreign oil companies simply don’t have the political clout of the domestic coal companies.

When the era of syn-fuel gets going, I think ammonia will be the fuel of choice.  Ammonia is a second-rate fuel compared to gasoline and diesel (due to low energy density), but it’s adequate to replace petroleum derived fuels in most application, while being completely sustainable, scalable, and environmentally friendly.   It has triple the energy density of 5000 psi hydrogen, even beating CNG, and it’s the easiest and cheapest fuel that can be made from sustainable energy (solar, wind, or nuclear), water, and air.  Like diesel fuel, it can be burned in regular piston engines, with 20% higher energy efficiency than gasoline.  Unlike hydrogen, it can be easily stored in warehouse-sized tanks for seasonal energy storage, and is cheap to transport by truck or rail (but is also compatible with pipelines like hydrogen).

For more info on ammonia fuel, see NH3 Fuel Association.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Nov 29, 2014


So, Roger, when you say “…will become…” I can only wonder what will inspire this miraculous transformation.

Perhaps some future generation, living in the midst of obvious ecological collapse, will fight with all it has to save and restore what remains. But I don’t see the present generation taking much action based on foresight and selflessness.


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 29, 2014

Perhaps some future generation, living in the midst of obvious ecological collapse, will fight with all it has to save and restore what remains. But I don’t see the present generation taking much action based on foresight and selflessness.”

I agree. Selflessness is not a trait that will appeal to more than a few percent of any population. The rest are moved by self interest, so that is the trait that must be appealed to. This is the essential problem with the strategy of the “renewables will save us” crowd, which relies on selflessness which is not the common denominator of real people.

Oil burn for mining can be largely electrified. Oil burn for mining can be electrified using mini nuclear power plants which can be factory produced and trucked to mining locations ready to assemble and operate. Earthmoving equipment is already electrical (with onboard dieasel fired generators supplied electric motors) so the concept is that the equipment is supplied by cable or rudimentary overhead lines, like trains.   if mini nukes are available, the full electrification of heavy mining operations is not only feasible, but cost effective. When mining, processing and refining of raw materials is thus electrified and cheap, there is nothing standing in the way of sustainable development. Mini nukes are the key.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Nov 29, 2014


But Joris, some people are not only not unselfish, they are downright terrorist. How can we have a mini nukes all over the place in this world?

One thought is to put small nuclear plants on ships at sea and have them make synfuel that can be taken into port for distribution. The navy can protect them, and then we don’t have to worry about proliferation or radiation release, or excessive safety precautions.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 29, 2014

As described here, the TRISO fuel that many favor for small nuclear reactors doesn’t make serious radiation releases during any credible accident scenario, including deliberate abuse.  The high temperature carbon and silicon carbide based material can’t be melted down or disolved in acid to make weapons.

It’s not nuclear power, but imported fossil fuels that is driving most of the terrism problems we have.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 30, 2014

There is plenty of oil left to ruin the biosphere with. From there, it’s coal to liquids and NG. Carbon based fuels will become excess carbon dioxide, an infrared absorber that makes the sky more opaque to infrared (which is normal light re-emitted from striking dark colors). We will be rewarded for figuring out (and paying only a slight bit more for) the puzzle.

The biosphere (as we know it) will die if we don’t. So, get a grip on the laws of physics.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Dec 1, 2014
China To Cap Coal Use By 2020 To Meet Game-Changing Climate, Air Pollution Targets

There are way too many claims of Game Changing This, and Game Changing That going around. That alone makes me skeptical of whatever they are about to say.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 1, 2014

Mini-nukes don’t increase proliferation concerns for the reasons EP notes. It’s simply far easier to build a bomb using centrifuge enrichment of natural uranium or a purpose-built weapons grade plutonium production reactor.

The only potential way to use a mini-nuke as a terrorist weapon is to extract the (irradiated) fuel from the core, and then fabricate a so-called ‘dirty bomb’. Such a bomb is not a nuclear bomb, but a conventional explosive designed to disperse radioactive material over an area. Such weapons have been researched to death (by the DoD for one, decades ago) and found largely ineffective due to being difficult to fabricate and handle (due to the radioactivity, which will kill any terrorist trying to get close to the material and physically put together a dirty bomb, let alone transport it to the point of use), and due to not causing much damage. The dispersed radioactive materials from such a bomb are solids which don’t actually disable personnel very well, and don’t cause a ‘shock and awe’ effect. The materials are then easily detected and relatively easily cleaned up. They will just lie on the ground, causing only very local health effects. In any case, taking radioactive materials from irradiated core assemblies requires a fully equiped hot-cell and a lot of time. How on earth are terrorist going to organise that? Are they not going to choose easier ways of wreaking mayhem?

It could happen that a terrorist group would go through the extreme hassle of building such a weapon and detonating it in a city (contaminating at most a few blocks), but such a terrorist group would have been able to cause far, far more mayhem by using the same effort just building conventional terrorist weapons (carbombs, IED’s, etc).

The ‘threat’ from terrorists using mini-nukes for building weapons is a non-starter, just like the ‘threat’ from using fertilizer to make a bomb is a non-starter. Not because it’s impossible to use fertilizer to make a bomb, but because there are other ways of making a better bomb which are far easier, cheaper and more effective. 

As EP noted, mini-nukes are designed to be idiot-proof. The simple once-though gas-cooled TRISO fueled mini-reactors I’m thinking of cannot be brought into a state of meltdown, by design. They have a very low power density allowing them to get rid of decay heat naturally through the reactor wall. If the control rods are completely removed and the coolant drained, the core temperature will shut down the reactor long before the fuel is damaged. These types of reactors pose no threat in any way, even if the operating personnel was incompetent or suicidal. Obviously, these kinds of characteristics are important when applying mini-reactors close to workers or residents, and that is why such characteristics are designed-in.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Dec 1, 2014

Sounds better than the molten salt reactors! Is China working on the TRISO fuel design? 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 2, 2014

Sure, if it’s nuclear, the Chinese are trying it.  As described here, they are building at pair of TRISO fueled, helium cooled reactors (called HTR-PM reactors) at the existing Shidaowan nuclear plant.  They will have a combined output of 210 MWe, and should come on-line in 2017.

However, the Chinese molten salt reactor program also involves a TRISO fueled, salt-cooled reactor prototype (in addition to the LFTR version which has the uranium fuel disolved in the salt).  This hybrid reactor combines all of the safety benefits of the HTR-PM with the improved power density of molten-salt.  So basically the same sized reactor will put out four times the power.  

The HTR-PM has a big head-start, but molten-salt coolant is so advantageous that I think it will win out in the end.

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