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China May Be Building $500 Billion Worth of Unnecessary Coal Plants

A worker walks past a pile of coal near a coal mine in Datong, in China's northern Shanxi province on November 20, 2015. Photograph by Greg Baker — AFP/Getty Images

China could be throwing away as much as $490 billion building coal-fired power plants it doesn’t need, according to a new study.

Even as China had 895 gigawatts of existing coal generating capacity, by this summer only half of it was being used. Yet the country has another 205 gigawatts under construction and even more planned, says London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative, which released the study. Carbon Tracker argues that China’s slowing demand for electricity as it moves away from heavy industry should obviate the need for more coal plants.

The findings are surprising in part because China has been taking significant steps to reduce its coal consumption. This year will likely mark the third consecutive year of a reduction in coal use, according to researchers. Reducing coal use is a major way China expects to hit the carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets it agreed to under the Paris Agreement.

But local governments are behind many of the wasteful projects that the central government is having a hard time trying to control.

The National Development and Reform Commission, which helps set national policy, has already halted 17 gigawatts of coal plants under construction, Carbon Tracker points out, and is targeting more.


Coal is a killer in China. Coal burning and the secondary effects of sulfate and nitrate contribute to almost half of the dangerous air pollutants in China’s polluted cities, compared to 20% from car emissions.

Officials also have a hard enough time controlling illegal uses of coal in small towns, which blacken skies.

Now they must contain unnecessary power plants, which might be wasting hundreds of billions and simultaneously hurting China’s population.