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.

The Chinese government announced Wednesday 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 Tsinghua-MIT 2014.
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 Tsinghua-MIT 2014.
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.