In 2018, roughly 20% of global CO2emissions were from Chinese combustion of coal. Despite ambitious programs to reduce coal use, significant construction of new coal-fired power capacity is underway in China. This chapter provides background on China’s coal consumption, production and policies.[1]


China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined, with just over half of global consumption. Most of the roughly 3.9 billion tons of coal consumed in China in 2018 was burned for power or heat. Coal is also used as a feedstock in several industries, including chemicals, iron and steel.[2]

[FIGURE 8-1]3

In 2018, coal accounted for 59% of primary energy consumption in China, according to official sources.[4]

For decades, coal has helped fuel China’s extraordinary economic growth. Between 2001 and 2013, Chinese coal consumption more than tripled. This played a central role in the growth of the Chinese economy, which grew by almost exactly the same amount during this period.[5]

However, coal use has also created extraordinary environmental problems. Due in large part to coal burning, some Chinese cities are among the most polluted in the world. Air pollution levels in many cities cause significant health problems.[6]

In 2014, Chinese coal consumption dropped for the first time in 15 years, falling roughly 3%. Coal consumption fell again in 2015 and 2016—by almost 4% and almost 5%, according to official statistics. The principal reasons for these decreases were (1) policies to discourage coal consumption; (2) a cyclical slowdown in coal-consuming sectors including iron, steel and cement; (3) a shift in economic activity from manufacturing to the service sector; and (4) lower rates of economic growth than in prior years.[7]

In 2017, Chinese coal consumption began to climb again, increasing in the range of 0.3%–1.0%. In 2018, the increase continued, with coal consumption rising roughly 1% according to official estimates. Factors contributing to these increases included a cyclical rebound in energy intensive manufacturing sectors, cold winters, hot summers, a drop in hydropower productivity and growth in heavy construction activity.[8]

Several leading Chinese energy experts, including former National Energy Administrator Zhang Guobao, project that China’s annual coal consumption will never again reach its previous peak (4.2 billion tons in 2013).[9]


[FIGURE 8-2]10

Coal-Fired Power Plants

Roughly half of China’s coal consumption is for electric power. (The other half is for heat, chemicals, manufacturing and other purposes.) In 2018, roughly 67% of China’s electric power was from coal.[11]

As of year-end 2018, China had roughly 1000 GW of coal-fired electric generating capacity—almost as much electric generating capacity as in the United States from all sources.[12]

Between 2006 and 2016, China’s coal-fired power fleet grew by an average of 50–60 GW per year. (Estimates vary.) Some press reports described this as “two coal-fired power plants per week.” Significant construction of new coal-fired power plants continues in China, although at a slightly slower pace. Capacity additions were:

  • 28–35 GW in 2017,
  • 28–33 GW in 2018, and
  • 18 GW in the first half of 2019.

As of March 2019, more than 125 GW of new coal-fired capacity was under construction in China.[13]

In 2018, China’s coal-fired power plants operated at less than 50% of capacity. (Overcapacity is widespread throughout Chinese industry, not just in the power sector.)[14]

China’s fleet of coal-fired power plants is among the most efficient in the world. In early 2017, 90 of China’s 100 largest coal-fired power plants were ultra-supercritical.[15]

In recent years roughly 11% of global CO2emissions have come from Chinese coal-fired power plants.[16]

[FIGURE 8-3]17

Coal Production

China is the world’s leading coal producer, with just under half of global production. In 2018, Chinese coal production increased by 4.5% to reach 3.68 billion tons, according to official statistics.[18]

China’s proved coal reserves are roughly 139 billion tons—38 years of production at current rates. The main coal-producing provinces include Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shaanxi.[19]

Chinese coal imports have fluctuated significantly in the past decade—surging between 2009 and 2013, falling in 2014 and 2015, and climbing in 2016, 2017 and 2018. (In 2018, Chinese coal imports were 281 million tons—7% of total coal consumption—according to official statistics). In 2018, China was the world’s third-largest coal importer, after Japan and India.[20]

Chinese coal production produces methane emissions. In 2005, these emissions were over 135 million tons of CO2equivalent (just over 1% of China’s current emissions), according to US EPA. Since then, Chinese coal production has increased by roughly 75%. Considerable investments have been made in capturing coal mine methane during this period as well. Current data on methane from Chinese coal mining are lacking.[21]

Coal Data Uncertainties

There are considerable uncertainties with respect to Chinese coal data.

  • Chinese government agencies have revised their estimates of domestic coal production and consumption on several occasions, including after each National Economic Census (in 2004, 2008 and 2013). Some of these revisions have been substantial. Official estimates of coal production in 2000 are now 39% higher than the original number released by the National Bureau of Statistics. In 2015, official estimates of Chinese coal consumption for the prior decade were revised upward by 17%.[22]
  • Aggregate data from provincial authorities generally exceed national figures from the central government, sometimes by as much as 20%. Reasons may include double-counting of coal traded among provinces and inflated figures from provincial officials (whose promotion often depends on hitting GDP targets that have historically been correlated with coal consumption).[23]
  • Some Chinese coal consumption statistics are based on tonnage while others are based on thermal content. Trends with respect to each can vary, causing confusion. Estimates of the thermal content of Chinese coal sometimes differ, which can compound the confusion.[24]
  • Official estimates of a roughly 1% increase in Chinese coal consumption in 2018 are difficult to reconcile with electricity consumption and coal production data, both of which suggest a greater increase.[25]

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there appears to be broad consensus that China’s coal consumption grew steadily until 2013, dropped or held steady for each of the next three years and then began growing again in 2017 and 2018.



Cutting coal use is a goal of the Chinese government. The many policies for achieving that goal include a national cap on coal consumption, targets for reducing coal’s share of the energy mix, requirements to dramatically reduce coal use in many urban areas, investments in coal-to-gas switching, CO2emissions standards for power plants and orders to close tens of thousands of inefficient coal-fired boilers.[26]

At the same time, several Chinese government policies promote coal use. These include grid dispatch rules that favor coal over variable renewables, cheap shipping costs for coal on state-owned railroads, cheap capital for coal power plants from state-owned banks and payments for the use of pollution control technologies without regard to whether facilities are in compliance with pollution control regulations. In addition, the promotion criteria for provincial and local officials, which have historically been heavily weighted toward GDP growth, have provided incentives for those officials to approve new coal plant construction even in the absence of a long-term need for power.[27]

China’s coal policies receive attention at the highest levels of government. In August 2015, Premier Li Keqiang said, “We will strive for zero growth in the consumption of coal in key areas of the country,” adding that “environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life.”[28]

Several Chinese government plans and directives have addressed coal consumption in recent years.

  • In 2013, the State Council’s Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control focused on coal as the first of five major themes, calling for the elimination of small coal-fired boilers, energy efficiency standards for large coal-fired boilers and other steps to address air pollution from coal.”[29]
  • In 2014, the State Council’s Strategic Action Plan for Energy Developmentcapped coal consumption nationwide at around 4.2 billion tons per year and called for cutting coal’s share of the primary energy mix to 62% by 2020. (That goal was achieved three years early, in 2017.)
  • Also in 2014, NDRC released Interim Provisions on Replacing Coal Consumption with Cleaner Energy Sources in Key Regions, calling for reducing coal consumption in many cities, including Beijing.[30]
  • In December 2016, NDRC and the National Energy Agency issued the 13th Five-Year Energy Development Plan, which calls for coal consumption of no more than 4.1 billion tons and 58% of primary energy by 2020.[31]
  • Throughout 2017, the Chinese government moved vigorously to convert coal heating to natural gas in many northern Chinese cities.
  • Throughout 2017, the Chinese government also cut back on existing and planned coal power plant capacity.
  1. In January 2017, the National Energy Administration cancelled to build 103 coal plants with 130 GW of capacity, including dozens of plants already under construction.[32]
  2. In March 2017, the State Council announced plans to phase out, stop construction of or postpone more than 50 GW of coal-fired power generation capacity.[33]
  3. Also in March 2017, the last coal-fired power plant in Beijing shut down.[34]
  4. In July 2017, NDRC announced plans to cancel or postpone construction of 150 GW of coal-fired power generation capacity, close over 20 GW of coal-fired power plants and limit total installed coal-fired generation capacity to 1100 GW by 2020.[35]

These policies have not stopped new coal plant construction in China. Coal plant capacity has been growing at a rate of roughly 30 GW per year for several years, as noted above. More than 125 GW of new coal-fired power plant capacity is currently under construction. This reflects the continuing priority GDP targets have in promotion criteria for provincial and local officials, the potential tax revenues new coal plants provide such officials and the lack of market discipline in the Chinese power sector, among other factors.[36]

In 2018 and early 2019, policies to reduce coal consumption received somewhat lower priority than in previous years. In part this was due to the cold winter of 2017/2018, when ambitious policies to convert heating from coal to natural gas led to natural gas shortages and buildings without adequate heat in north China. In part, it was due to concerns about a slowing economy. 

  • In summer and fall 2018, the pace of conversions from coal heating in northern China slowed. In part as a result, air pollution levels in northern China were higher in the winter of 2018/2019 than the year before.[37]
  • In March 2019 the China Electricity Council, a trade association serving the state-owned power sector, called for an increase of coal-fired generating capacity to 1300 GW by 2030.[38]
  • In March 2019, the National Energy Administration relaxed restrictions on building coal-fired plants in 11 provinces, including Hebei, Chongqing and Guangdong, based on projections of power demand in relation to generation capacity in 2022 and other factors.[39]

Chinese coal plants are subject to CO2emissions standards. In 2015, large power generation companies were prohibited from emitting more than 650 grams of CO2per kWh on average across all their plants. That figure falls to 550 grams by 2020. These standards require Chinese power companies to improve the efficiency of coal production, invest in low-carbon generation or both. In 2016, average emissions across the Chinese electricity system as a whole were 620 grams of CO2per kWh. The largest Chinese coal-fired power plants are now substantially more efficient than US coal-fired power plants.[40]

Coal production in China is subject to a tax of 2%–10%, with the exact rate set by individual provinces. In 2015, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shaanxi, which together account for roughly two-thirds of Chinese coal production, set their rates at 9%, 8% and 6.1%, respectively.[41]


[1] Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2018(December 2018) at slide 9, 34 (7.5 Gt CO2emissions from coal in China, 37.1 Gt global CO2emissions). See below at note 10 for data on coal plant construction.

[2] BP Statistical Review of World Energy(June 2019) at p.45 (China 2018 coal consumption = 50.5% of world total); Zhang Lei, “In 2018, China's raw coal output reached 3.68 billion tons,” 8, 2019).

[3] BP Statistical Review of World Energy(June 2019) at p.45

[4] National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2018”(February 28, 2019) at Part 12.

[5] China Statistical Yearbook 2018: Section 9-5 Coal Balance Sheet(accessed July 26, 2019); World Bank GDP data(accessed July 26, 2019).

[6] See “Doctors blame air pollution for China’s asthma increases,”Lancet(December 2016); American Thoracic Society“Chinese air pollution linked to respiratory and cardiovascular deaths,”ScienceDaily (February 10, 2017).

[7] NDRC, “Notice of Reducing Coal Consumption in 2016”(July 11, 2016); “China says coal consumption falls for third year”(February 28, 2017); Ye Qi, Nicholas Stern et al., “China’s Post-Coal Growth,”Nature Geoscience(August 2016) at p.4.

[8] National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2017” (February 28, 2018) at Part 12 (0.4% increase in 2017); International Energy Agency, “Global Energy and CO2Status Report 2018”(March 2018) at p.7 (0.3% increase in 2017); Qi Ye and JiaqiLu, “China’s Coal Consumption Has Peaked,”Brookings (January 22, 2018) (1.0% increase); IEA, Global Energy and CO2Status Report 2018(March 2019) (1% in 2018); National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2018”(February 28, 2019) at Part 12 (1% in 2018); IEA, Global Energy and CO2Status Report 2018(March 2019) (1% in 2018).

[9] Ye Qi and Jiaqi Lu, “China’s Coal Consumption Has Peaked,”Brookings (January 22, 2018).

[10] BP Statistical Review of World Energy(June 2019) at p.45

[11] Estimates of the power sector’s share of Chinese coal consumption vary. See “China’s coal market supply and demand in 2019 may turn to loose,”China Economic Net(March 1, 2019) (59% in 2018); “How is China’s Energy Footprint Changing,”China Power(accessed July 26, 2019) (42% in 2015). With respect to coal’s share of electricity generation, see BP Statistical Review of World Energy (June 2019) at p.56 (66.54% in 2018); César Alejandro Hernández Alva and Xiang Li, Power sector reform in China,International Energy Agency (November 2018) at p.14 (65.5% in 2017); “2017 electricity and other energy statistics (update of June 2018),”China Energy Portal(June 14, 2018) (64.7% in 2017).

[12] “2018 electricity and other energy statistics,”China Energy Portal (January 25, 2019).

[13] Carbon Brief Infographics: Global Coal Power(accessed July 26, 2019); “2018 electricity and other energy statistics,”China Energy Portal (January 25, 2019); “2017 electricity and other energy statistics (update of June 2018),”China Energy Portal(June 14, 2018); Christine Shearer et al, Boom and Bust 2019: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipelineat p.12; Global Energy Monitor, New Coal-Fired Capacity by Country(July 2019); Christine Shearer et al., Tsunami Warning,CoalSwarm (September 2018).

[14] “2018 electricity and other energy statistics,”China Energy Portal (January 25, 2019); Mengjia Ren et al., “China overinvested in coal power: Here’s why,” VOX CEPR Policy Portal(March 16, 2019); Gabriel Wildau and Emily Feng, “China Broadens Campaign Against Overcapacity,”Financial Times(November 23, 2017).

[15] Melanie Hart, Luke Bassett and Blaine Johnson, “Everything You Think You Know About Coal in China Is Wrong,”Center for American Progress(May 15, 2017); Ben Caldecott et al., “Stranded Assets and Thermal Coal in China,”Smith School, Oxford University (February 2017) at p.12.

[16] César Alejandro Hernández Alva and Xiang Li, Power sector reform in China,International Energy Agency (November 2018) at p.12.

[17] BP Statistical Review of World Energy(June 2019) at p.45

[18] National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2018”(February 28, 2019) at table 3.

[19] BP Statistical Review of World Energy(June 2019) at p.42.

[20] National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2018”(February 28, 2019) at table 11; “China Imports of Coal,”Trading Economics (accessed June 22, 2019); Daniel Workman, “Coal Imports by Country”(May 2, 2019).

[21] International Energy Agency, “Coal Mine Methane in China”(February 2009) at p.7; “China Coal Production by Year,”Index Mundi (accessed June 26, 2018) (Chinese coal production in 2005 = approximately 2 billion tons).

[22] Ye Qi and Tong Wu, “Putting China’s Coal Consumption into Context,”Brookings (November 30, 2015); Ayaka Jones, “Recent statistical revisions suggest higher historical coal consumption in China,”Today in Energy,US Energy Information Administration (September 16, 2015); Chris Buckley, “China Burns Much More Coal Than Reported, Complicating Climate Talks,”New York Times(November 3, 2015); Robert Wilson, “Can Chinese coal data be trusted?,”Carbon Counter (June 9, 2015); Kevin Tu, Industrial Organization Of The Chinese Coal Industry,Stanford Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (July 2011).

[23] Xinyu Chen et al., “Changing carbon content of Chinese coal and implications for emissions of CO2,”Journal of Cleaner Production(May 20, 2018); Dabo Guan et al., “The Gigatonne Gap in China’s Carbon Dioxide Inventories,”Nature Climate Change(2012) pp.672–675.

[24] See generally Zhu Liu et al., “Reduced carbon emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in China,”Nature(August 20, 2015); Jan Ivar Korsbakken et al., “Uncertainties around reductions in China’s coal use and CO2 emissions,”Nature Climate Change(February 16, 2016); Michael Lelyveld, “China’s Coal Consumption Clouded in Mystery,”Radio Free Asia(May 21, 2018).

[25] Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Robbie Andrew and Glen Peters, “China’s CO2emissions grew slower than expected 2018,”Carbon Brief(May 3, 2019).

[26] See Nathaniel Taplin, “The Real ‘War on Coal’ is in China,”Wall Street Journal(November 14, 2017); Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe, “China’s Coal Market: Can Beijing Tame ‘King Coal’?,” Oxford Energy Inst. (December 2014) at pp.3, 11.

[27] Mengja Ren et al., “China overinvested in coal power: Here’s why,”VOX CEPR Policy Portal(March 16, 2019); Craig Hart, Zhu Jiayan and Ying Jiahui, Mapping China’s Climate and Energy Policies(December 2018) at pp.84–89; IEA, China Power System Transformation (February 2019) at pp. 42–45.

[28] RT Business, “China to slash coal consumption by 160mn tons in 5 years”(March 6, 2015).

[29] State Council, Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control (September 10, 2013)

[30] “Beijing to Ban Coal Use,”NDRC, Interim Provisions on Replacing Coal Consumption with Cleaner Energy Sources in Key Regions (2014); UNFCCC (August 5, 2014).

[31] State Council, “Energy Strategic Plan”(November 2014); State Council, “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control”(September 2013); NDRC, “Interim Provisions on Replacing Coal Consumption with Cleaner Energy Sources in Key Regions”(December 29, 2014); NDRC and NEA, “13th Five-Year Energy Development Plan”(December 2016); Alvin Lin, “Understanding China’s New Mandatory 58% Coal Cap”(March 17, 2017).

[32] Michael Forsythe, “China Cancels 103 Coal Plants,”New York Times(January 18, 2017).

[33] State Council, “Report on the Work of the Government”(March 16, 2017).

[34] Stephen Chen, “Beijing shuts down its last coal-fired power plant as part of bid to clear air,”South China Morning Post(March 19, 2017).

[35] National Energy Administration, “China stopped 2400MW aged coal-fired power generators”(October 31, 2017), 

[36] See discussion at note 13 above.

[37] “In order to ensure the supply of winter gas source to alleviate environmental pressure, it is necessary to promote coal to gas,”21st Century Business Herald(November 15, 2018).

[38] “China Electricity Council suggests 2030 target of 1300 GW of coal-fired power,” China Energy Portal(March 18, 2019).

[39] National Energy Administration, Circular on 2022 risk and early warning for coal power planning and construction(March 27, 2019); GIZ, China Energy Policy Newsletter(May and June 2019); “China’s Far From Done With Coal as Regulator Eases New Plant Ban,”Bloomberg Markets (April 19, 2019).

[40] State Council, “Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan”(October 27, 2016); “National Plan for Addressing Climate Change (2014–2020)”(November 25, 2014) at p.3; Alvin Lin, “China’s New Plans Deepen Action on Climate Change”(December 19, 2016).

[41] “China Imposes a New Coal Production Tax”(January 13, 2015)

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