China on the cusp of a coal-fired power boom, threatening global targets

Mr Rudd said on Wednesday that amid the need to maintain its economic footprint, concerns about the environment in China had “moved from the margins to the mainstream”.

He told the Harvard-Columbia China in the World program at the Australian National University that while the environment had become one of the Chinese Communist Party’s top 10 priorities, the survival of the party through economic growth was paramount.

“In the absence of a strong economy it cannot aspire to strong regional power status,” he said.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd said heightened environmental concerns in China were still secondary to economic expansion.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The UN’s renewable energy advisory body found in July that China contributed to almost a third of the global renewables investment in 2018. It added $133 billion compared with $89 billion from the EU and $70 billion from the US.

But Beijing’s support for coal was criticised during the Madrid climate talks last week and amid growing concerns the 2015 Paris agreement seeking to limit future warming to no more than 2 degrees will not succeed.

The Climate Change Performance Index, published by international environmental advocacy groups, said it had observed “contradictory trends” in China. It found a coal-fired power plant approval spree between 2014-2016 was driving the increase, potentially lifting China’s power capacity beyond the country’s United Nations-set limits designed to restrict warming to 2 degrees by 2035. Global targets could also be missed as a result.

“In other words, even if the rest of the world phased out all coal power use by 2035, China’s coal power generation alone would greatly exceed the global limits determined by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] for coal power use,” the paper found.

Other studies have been more optimistic about China’s transition. An article published in July in the scientific journal Nature found China’s emissions would peak in 2030.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor, who has advocated a mix of coal and renewables amid international criticism Australia has not been lifting its weight, said he would push for a greater uptake of renewables overseas.

“The best way to engage countries such as China on emissions reduction is to focus on developing future technology pathways that lead to tangible improvements,” he said.

The Chinese government told the UN climate change summit in Madrid last week that it was committed to instituting a nationwide carbon markets scheme in 2020. Talks on a global mechanism faltered at the summit amid calls for developed countries to subsidise the renewable transition of developing economies.

Chinese innovation expert Andrew Kennedy said China was interested in becoming a leader in new energy technology to avoid becoming reliant on other countries, as it is for fossil fuels.

“Rising powers face an innovation imperative,” said Professor Kennedy at the Australian National University. “They have clearly tried to compete in the renewable energy space and not be dependent in that area.”

Referring to the need to balance economic growth while keeping control of pollution, Professor Kennedy said anyone visiting cities in China would see why they are so motivated. “Energy is such a core technology as far as the economy is concerned,” he said.


In its yearly review, the Climate Change Performance Index also described the Morrison government as “an increasingly regressive force” in climate change negotiations after it declared it had a right to use carryover credits to meet its targets under the Paris agreement. It ranked Australia last out of 57 countries on climate change policy.

“The dismissal of recent IPCC reports … and the withdrawal from funding the Green Climate Fund (GCF) underpin the overall very low performance in the climate policy category,” the index said.

“Experts note that the new government is an increasingly regressive force in negotiations and has been criticised for its lack of ambition by several Pacific Island nations in the context of this year’s Pacific Island Forum.”

The government shifted its focus from the Green Climate Fund to climate change resilience in the Pacific last year, contributing $500 million to developing renewable energy in the region.


Mr Taylor said the government rejected the index and its subjective findings “because it clearly ignores key facts and statistics”.

Labor climate change spokesman Mark Butler accused the government of shirking its international obligations.

“Scott Morrison’s performance on climate policy has become an international disgrace,” he said. “At this rate, it will take Australia 230 years to reach net zero emissions, rather than the 30 years scientists tell us is necessary.”

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