China has released new statistics indicating that it used less coal last year than in 2014, lending support to the view that the country, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, may be reaching a peak in coal consumption.
That would be a boon for global efforts to limit climate change, since industrial coal burning is the primary source of greenhouse gases.
The new data, released on Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics, said coal consumption had fallen 3.7 percent in 2015 compared with the previous year. It was the second straight year of decline, according to the bureau, which said coal use had dropped 2.9 percent in 2014.
Official Chinese statistics can be unreliable, and there is evidence that officials have tried to censor or hide economic data.
Much of the world is watching China’s actions on carbon emissions, since it is responsible for about half of the world’s coal consumption. President Xi Jinping has said that China intends for its greenhouse gas emissions to stop growing around 2030. Some climate experts in China say the peak could come earlier, closer to 2025.
Official Chinese statistics can be unreliable, and there is evidence that officials have tried to censor or hide economic data. But they have also shown some transparency on coal consumption numbers.
Last year, the government released data that corrected annual coal consumption figures since 2000, revealing that China had burned much more coal than previously thought. Older numbers had been based on faulty data collection, particularly from small companies and factories.
Coal use has dropped in China because the country’s economic growth has slowed considerably in recent years. The government is also enacting policies to curb coal use in large population centers in eastern China, to bring down extraordinary levels of air pollution.
15% of the workforce in China’s coal industry is expected to be to let go; that’s about 1.8 million workers
In a new estimate of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, a team of international researchers said China’s carbon dioxide emissions had fallen 2.5 percent in 2015 compared with 2014. Emissions in the United States, the largest emitter after China, were down 3 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions globally appeared to have dropped 0.43 percent, according to Glen Peters, a member of the team, called the Global Carbon Project.
The figures were a revision of earlier estimates released in December, which put the global decline in emissions for 2015 at 0.6 percent.
The pain being felt across China’s coal industry suggests the country’s slowdown in coal demand and consumption is real. On Monday, the government said the coal and steel industries, which are dominated by state-owned enterprises, were expected to lay off 1.8 million workers, or about 15 percent of the workforce.
Zeng Hao, a coal industry analyst in Shanxi, one of China’s biggest coal-producing provinces, said the industry did worse than expected in 2015. Coal producers were hoping for a recovery in the third quarter, but it never materialized, he said.
The slowing economy has also left China with a growing overcapacity in coal-fired power plants. State-owned companies across China have been building many more such plants, even though existing ones have been cutting back their operating hours.
These plants do nothing but fuel the overcapacity crisis and add huge debt burdens. It is a trend which must be halted immediately.
Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior global coal campaigner at Greenpeace
On Wednesday, Greenpeace East Asia released a revised report that said China had granted environmental permits last year for 210 new and proposed coal-fired power plants. The group’s original report, released in November, had put the number at 155. Greenpeace estimated that the 210 proposed plants would cost about $100 billion in total.
The surplus of plants is not expected to result in a big surge in coal use, since the slowing economy is the main reason consumption has fallen. But besides adding to the overcapacity problem, the glut is expected to make it harder for companies generating energy from renewable sources to earn revenue, since the coal-generated plants compete with them for contracts with the state-owned enterprises that run China’s electricity grids. The coal-fired power plants have an advantage in securing contracts and time on the grid.
“Warnings about China’s overcapacity crisis are coming in left, right and center, and yet the rate at which new coal power plants are being approved is increasing,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior global coal campaigner at Greenpeace and a main author of the report. “These plants do nothing but fuel the overcapacity crisis and add huge debt burdens. It is a trend which must be halted immediately.”
On Wednesday, Todd D. Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, who was in Beijing for talks, said that some Chinese officials had expressed concern about whether President Barack Obama’s successor would ensure that the United States was committed to the global climate accord reached in Paris in December.
Stern said he had tried to reassure the officials. “I think it would be highly surprising to me if anybody elected were to try to pull the United States out of that,” he said at a news briefing. “Anybody doing that would just be creating a foreign policy problem.”