FILE - Cars pass the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant in Shanghai, March 22, 2016.
FILE - Cars pass the Shanghai Waigaoqiao Power Generator Company coal power plant in Shanghai, March 22, 2016.

SHANGHAI - China restarted construction on more than 50 gigawatts (GW) of suspended coal-fired power plants last year, bucking a global shift away from fossil fuels, a new study showed Thursday.

China has repeatedly pledged to reduce its reliance on coal, a major source of smog and climate-warming greenhouse gases, and it has cut coal’s share of its total energy mix to 59 percent, down from 68.5 percent in 2012.

But satellite images show China “quietly resumed” construction in 2018 on dozens of previously shelved plants, making it a “glaring exception to the global decline,” said a joint report by environmental groups Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

The report warned that China could build an additional 290 GW of capacity, more than the whole of the United States’ coal capacity, and still remain within the 1,300-GW cap for national coal-fired power generation proposed by the China Electricity Council, an influential industry group.

A general view of a Chinese-backed power plant und
A general view of a Chinese-backed power plant under construction, May 23, 2018, in Islamkot in the desert in the Tharparkar district of Pakistan's southern Sindh province.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission and its National Energy Administration did not immediately respond to faxed requests to comment on the conclusions of the report.

Lauri Myllyvirta, analyst with Greenpeace’s Global Air Pollution Unit, said Chinese firms are now “pushing for hundreds of additional coal-fired power plants.”

“Another coal power construction spree would be near impossible to reconcile with emission reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” he said.

Worldwide, the number of newly completed coal projects fell 20 percent in 2018 and plant retirements continued at a record pace, the study said.

China and coal

But China’s relationship with the dirtiest of fossil fuels remains ambivalent.

The domestic coal power capacity under construction rose 12 percent in 2018, though it was still a third lower than what was being built in 2015. Beijing has also cut back dramatically on new project permits.

While China has vowed to cap consumption nationally and even make cuts in regions like Beijing, Hebei and Henan, overall coal-fired generation has increased, particularly from new “coal bases” in the nation’s northwest.

And though it has promoted alternative fuels at home and built hundreds of solar and wind farms, China is still financing more than a quarter of the new coal-fired plants abroad.

FILE - Chinese employees working, Dec. 11, 2017, o
FILE - Chinese employees working, Dec. 11, 2017, on a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.

Soft landing for coal

China is also keen to prop up coal prices and ensure a “soft landing” for a commodity responsible for millions of domestic jobs in struggling industrial districts.

The availability of increasingly competitive and reliable renewable energy, however, has led to concerns that coal investments will soon become unprofitable “stranded assets.”

The State Development and Investment Corporation, a central government-run investment group with significant holdings in the power sector, announced earlier this year that it would no longer fund coal projects.

Sources told Reuters last week the central bank is also about to release new guidelines that will prevent “clean coal” projects, including low-emission coal-fired power plants, from issuing “green bonds.”