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CGS analysis illustrates pathways for rapid coal retirement in China

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Research led by the Center for Global Sustainability (CGS) at the University of Maryland provides key insights about rapid coal phaseout in China—a process critical to success in achieving global climate goals. Released today in the open-access journal Nature Communications, the analysis shows how China can meet ambitious climate and economic development goals, while also balancing other domestic priorities, even with a rapid coal phaseout by 2045 and a halt of new coal power plant construction. 

China has recently set an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero emissions before 2060. At the same time, more than half of the current coal power capacity globally is in China. In this context, rapid action to shift away from unabated coal use will be needed to meet China’s own development goals—and limit global warming to 1.5°C. 

“China is the biggest contributor to global coal consumption, but they are not alone. They have the opportunity to set a global standard for coal phaseout,” says Prof. Ryna Cui, lead author of the paper and lead for the Global Coal Transition Project at CGS. “A critical part of success is ensuring that the phaseout is well structured and continues to ensure air quality, human health, grid stability, and other social and economic goals.” 

The plant-by-plant data behind this analysis allows such detailed pathways to coal retirement to be developed. The pathways outlined in the paper point toward a three-principle strategy: 1. Halt new coal plant construction, 2. Close the oldest and most inefficient plants rapidly, and 3. Reduce coal plant utilization from baseload generation to peaking service in China’s power system. 

“Results in this paper show that with enhanced action, China can meet both domestic and global goals through a structured phaseout of coal power,” says Prof. Nate Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability and a co-author of the paper. “In addition to illustrating key strategies within the Chinese context, our approach provides a potential template for decision-makers across the world to structure phaseouts in their own contexts to allow to accelerate the transition to a clean energy future, protect the health of future generations, and limit global warming to well-below 1.5°C.” 

“Based on this analysis of over 1000 operating coal-fired power plants, 18% of existing coal plants—a total of 112 GW of capacity—perform poorly according to all technical, economic, and environmental criteria and thus are low-hanging fruit that are ready for a rapid shutdown,” says Dr. Sha Yu, co-director of the CGS China Program. “To meet China’s climate and development goals, remaining coal plants can operate at a minimum of 20 or 30 more years, but usage must gradually and responsibly be reduced by 2045 to limit warming to 1.5°C.”

The data behind this analysis also supports critical plant-level and country emissions data for Bloomberg Philanthropy’s new interactive dashboard— the Bloomberg Global Coal Countdown—which launched in early March. The Bloomberg Global Coal Countdown showcases progress to-date and the growing momentum to move away from coal power.

“Combining plant-by-plant data with country-level modeling helps policymakers understand the critical steps that need to be taken—from retirement to cancellation to phasing out—so that the world can be on the path towards a low-carbon energy future,” adds Dr. Haewon McJeon, associate research scholar at CGS and paper co-author.

Download the open-access paper

Learn more about the Bloomberg Global Coal Countdown.


For Media Inquiries:
Shannon Kennedy
Strategic Engagement Manager, CGS
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