China’s New Energy Agenda: Coal Power Will Be Top Priority

  • Date: 15/11/19
  • China Dialogue

Premier Li Keqiang has re-emphasised coal as China’s primary source of energy security, and toned down the urgency of the low-carbon transition

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Cranes along a quay load ships with coal to be used for generating electricity at Lianyungang Port, China, October 2019. (Image: Alamy)

China has signalled that coal power will be a top priority within national energy policy as the government prepares its next Five Year Plan (2021-25).

On 11 October, Premier Li Keqiang chaired a meeting of the National Energy Commission in Beijing that emphasised China’s energy security and coal utilisation and downplayed the importance of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Each meeting of the commission, which was established in 2010 and has met only four times, has had a significant impact on policymaking. Chaired by Premier Li and attended by more than 20 chiefs of China’s ministries and bureaus, the commission is the top body for coordinating energy policy.

Why is energy security back at the top of the agenda?

Li told the conference: “The government should diversify energy supply to improve energy security… enhance domestic oil and gas exploration and development efforts, and promote oil and gas reserves and production, in order to improve oil and gas self-sufficiency”.

The renewed focus on energy security comes amid an increase in domestic consumption of oil and gas, which is largely being met through imports. China’s dependence on energy imports rose from 9% in 2014 to more than 20% in 2018.

China’s domestic crude oil production has declined and efforts to tap unconventional sources of natural gas, such as shale gas and coalbed methane, have faltered.

Other causes for concern lie outside China. The ongoing trade dispute with the US is a threat to the energy trade between the two superpowers, and supplies from the Middle East are at risk from mounting instability in the region.

The green transition loses ‘acceleration’

The government’s concern over energy security is positive for coal given that China has lots of it. At the meeting, Li Keqiang spoke of speeding up the construction of large-scale coal transportation and electricity transmission infrastructure. He wants to promote “safe and green coal mining”, the “clean and efficient development of coal-fired power”, and to “develop and utilise coalbed methane”.  

Li also downplayed China’s low-carbon energy transition. At the same meeting in 2016, Li called on China to: “increase the proportion of renewables in the energy mix” and “accelerate” such a transition. This year, there was no mention of renewable energy’s share of the energy mix and “acceleration” was replaced by the blander term “development”. The change of tone was hard to miss.

Controlling coal power development and supporting renewable energy is the bedrock of China’s energy policy in the current Five Year Plan (2016-2020). The National Energy Administration announced recently that China had already completed the plan’s objective of eliminating 20 gigawatts (GW) of inefficient coal-fired power units, and is set to stay beneath its cap of 1100GW of installed coal capacity.

Solar and wind power capacity have also grown rapidly in recent years, exceeding the five-year target. As costs fall, the NEA expects that in the early 14th Five Year Plan period – meaning by 2021 or 2022 – solar and wind will compete with coal power without any subsidies. However, Li’s speech suggests momentum in the energy transition could be lost if the next Five Year Plan for Energy charts a different path.

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