China Cut Its Coal Use 2.9 Percent Last Year, Will They Peak Even Before 2020?

CREDIT: AP/Andy Wong

Workers load coal from a truck to a process station in China's Hebei province in November.

China cut its coal consumption 2.9 percent in 2014, the first drop this century. Domestic coal production fell 2.5 percent.

As we reported last year, the Chinese government announced in November it would cap coal use by 2020. The new data raise the possibility the peak in coal consumption will come even sooner.

This reversal on coal utterly refutes the GOP claim that China’s recent climate pledge with the United States “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.”


CREDIT: Greenpeace

In reality, what a stunning turnaround this is for Chinese energy policy, where the focus has been building one or more coal plants a week for some for two decades — a key reason China was responsible for about half of the world’s recent growth in carbon pollution.

Now they’ll be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades to meet their commitment, made in the deal with the U.S., to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.” That means adding some 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon power in 16 years, which 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.”

Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress, notes that the 2014 coal drop suggests the country is “well on track to peak coal use by 2020” but “if coal growth remains sluggish over the next few years Chinese coal use could possibly peak even earlier.” Also, she points out that “most models indicate that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak about ten years after coal.”

Remember, the CO2 deal Chinese President Xi Jinping announced with Obama in November was that “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” Hart notes that the italicized “language was critical and we should assume it was not issued lightly. It suggests that Chinese leaders are open to making even more ambitious climate moves if the economics allow, and this new data suggests that the economics are looking very good indeed.”

Put another way, why would China announce with such public fanfare they are going to “make best efforts to peak early” if they didn’t think they could and would? Failure to peak early would show the “best efforts” of the Chinese failed. That is not how China rolls.

So no one should be surprised if China peaks in coal use before 2020 — as that would be key for them to peak CO2 emissions before 2030.