Research Press Release

Environment: A plant-by-plant strategy for coal power phaseout in China

Nature Communications

March 17, 2021

China’s net CO2 emissions could reach zero by 2055 or 2070 under the global 1.5°C or 2°C climate targets, respectively, with fast retirement of some poorly performing coal power plants and gradually reduced utilization of the others within 20–30 years, suggests a study published in Nature Communications. The findings may help inform feasible pathways to achieve China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal.

China possesses more than half of the current coal power capacity of the world. In 2020, China announced its goal to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. However, China faces great challenges to accomplish coal phaseout in the next few decades while balancing multiple priorities including avoiding stranding of assets and meeting power needs for local development.

Ryna Yiyun Cui and colleagues conducted a systematic evaluation of the 1,037 coal-fired power plants currently operating in China using eight different criteria that demonstrate technical, economic and environmental impacts of the plants. The authors found that coal plants in Shanghai, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Gansu, Liaoning, Shanxi, Jilin, Qinghai and Henan received the lowest scores on average across all three criteria. They identify 18% of all plants with consistently low performance scores that are particularly suitable for rapid retirement. For the remaining plants, the researchers designed two alternative phaseout strategies that can be applied flexibly to reflect different priorities in local contexts. For example, the existing plants can either keep running at current production levels until they are retired, or run through their designed minimum lifetime (20–30 years) with limited operating time.

The authors highlight that these strategies were discussed without considering the construction of any new coal-fired power plants that may be underway or are at the planning stage, and only considers the phaseout of all existing ones. An immediate halt to building new conventional coal plants can reduce the risk of stranded assets and may be crucial for achieving the carbon neutrality goal. More research will also be needed to explore potential economic and social impacts brought by coal phaseout in China.

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