Since China’s reform and opening in the late 1970s, coal consumption has increased due the need to power rapid economic development. In recent years, the energy consumption growth rate has slowed down, and it is expected that in the ‘13th Five-Year-Plan on Energy Development’ (2016-2020), the annual average growth rate will be around 2.5%, a 1.1% reduction compared to the 12th FYP .
Coal is still the single largest source in China’s energy consumption mix, the percentage of coal consumption in 1995 was as high as 70% of total energy consumption, declined to around 65% in 2015, and is estimated to be reduced to 60% in 2020 and 50% in 2030 (Figure 1).
As for the absolute numbers, coal consumption in China just started to decline starting in 2014. In China’s ‘13th FYP for Coal Industry’, total coal consumption by 2020 is to be controlled under 4.1 billion tons , but by 2015 the national coal consumption was already 3.96 billion tons, which leaves the remaining years more challenging to reach the 2020 target.
The Chinese coal-based thermal power sector (hereafter ‘the Chinese Sector’) has been the sector that consumes the largest amount of coal in China. According to the latest figures, in 2015 the total coal consumption from the Chinese Sector amounts to around 1.96 billion tons and accounts for 49.5% of total Chinese coal consumption. According to China Electricity Council (CEC), the total installed capacity of coal-fired power plants (CFPPs) reached circa 943 GW in 2016, a 5.3% increase compared to 2015 .
The large amount of harmful substances emitted from coal combustion have resulted in the deterioration of ambient air quality and large-scale acid degradation, causing serious pollution to the environment and negative impacts to human health. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Administration (NEA) have released several regulations to enforce the emissions standards, limit the construction of coal-fired power plants, promote ultra-low emission CFPPs, and facilitate more renewables to the power grid and so on. For example, in March of 2016, the NDRC together with NEA released the ‘Notice on Improving the Orderly Development of Coal-fired Power Plants’ to limit the pace of the Chinese Sector’s development by halting new projects and suspending construction in certain regions (Figure 2). The Notice requires that the obsolete generation units of 20-25 years old should retire in priority in 2016-2020 if these units are below 300 MW capacity. In September 2016, 15 proposed CFPPs, which accounted for 12.4 GW of capacity, were suspended by NEA due to the overcapacity of coal power fleet and low growth of national electricity consumption, the total number of CFPPs affected by the new policy was estimated to be around 110 GW .
Current regulations on coal consumption by the Chinese Sector focus more on emission standards enforcement. The environmental departments are playing a supervisory role, but enforcement has been poor due to the weak role of environmental departments of provincial and municipal governments as the leaders of local environmental governments are appointed by the governors or mayors rather than by MEP. The upgraded high standards also make enforcement demanding technically. Even if the air pollutants emission standards are all met, the lack of a total consumption cap on coal could still lead to the deterioration of the environment; therefore, it is necessary to position environmental health in the center. More stringent emissions standards and stricter cap on coal consumption should aim for better environmental quality that can ensure both healthy environment and benefits to public health.
Fortunately, there has been considerable progress in total pollutants
control in recent years. Due to the occurrence of severe air pollution
events and the induced extensive discussion, a more stringent revision
of the ‘Law on Air Pollution Prevention and Control’ was passed in 2015,
stipulating total quantity control of air pollutants by law. However,
the pollution control section in coal combustion does not mention the
consumption cap on coal, meaning the pollutants from coal can still
rise. But based on current trends, coal consumption has been declining
and future trends of pollutants from the Chinese Sector can be further
lowered considering the increasingly stringent emissions standards.
This report will review the regulatory policies and environmental standards of the Chinese coalbased thermal power sector, the pollution control and monitoring practices, and the future policy trends regarding air pollution from the Chinese Sector.