HONG KONG — For decades, coal-fired power plants have propelled much of China’s economic rise, helping to make the nation the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Even with economic growth slackening, and other energy sources taking hold, new coal plants have been added.
Now Beijing is trying to slow things down.
China has halted plans for new coal-fired power stations in many parts of the country, and construction of some approved plants will be postponed until at least 2018.
The announcement, by the National Development and Reform Commission and the National Energy Administration, means that about 200 planned coal-fired power generators — those seeking approval and those approved but not yet under construction — may not be completed, said Lauri Myllyvirta, who analyzes China’s energy production for the environmental group Greenpeace.
The total of 105 gigawatts of power that those plants would have been able to produce is considerably more than the electricity-generating capacity of Britain from all sources.
“That’s a big chunk of power,” said Bob Hodge, a coal specialist with IHS Energy, a consulting firm. “It’s a lot of power. It’s a heck of a lot of power.”
The Chinese announcement was made public after leaders from 175 countries, including China, gathered in New York on Friday to sign the Paris climate accord, which aims to halt and eventually reverse the rise in carbon emissions, keeping the increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Electricity generated from fossil fuels like coal is the biggest single contributor globally to the rise in carbon emissions, which scientists say is causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.
China, by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is aiming to reach a peak in carbon emissions by 2030.
A recent economic slowdown, policies to discourage coal-fired power plants near big cities, and a huge investment in wind and solar energy capacity helped reduce coal use in China last year.
But even as coal becomes unpopular in China, the country’s biggest state-owned electricity generators are adding new coal-fired power plants at a pace not seen in a decade, said Myllyvirta, at Greenpeace, which is acknowledged as an authoritative analyst of China’s energy production. Such plants add to existing overcapacity, he said.
The announcement does not stop projects under construction, which amount to about 190 gigawatts of new coal-fired power generation, he said.
“It’s definitely a positive step, but it’s not even enough to prevent the overcapacity from getting worse,” Myllyvirta said.
While the curbs on new coal projects, if rigorously enforced, may help China meet its long-term goals on climate change and air pollution, the primary motivation for the move appears to be short-term economic considerations.
In the face of the slowest economic growth in a quarter-century, electricity demand has fallen so sharply in China that some coal-burning power plants are operating only 40 or 50 percent of the time.
Construction of wind turbines and solar panels has also eaten slightly into the market share of the coal plants.
Yet in China’s highly regulated power industry, market signals are weak, and planning and construction of new power plants had continued apace, pushed forward by local governments eager for the construction jobs and expanded tax base.
With its new decrees, the central government seems to be trying to halt the development of power plants that might well be underused if they are built.
Hodge, the consultant at IHS Energy, said that as of two weeks ago, there were 1,200 new coal-fired plants on the drawing boards in 59 countries, mostly in Asia, and China was the single largest contributor.
“In my opinion, if they needed the power, they would build them,” he said of China.
“I think if you are Beijing, and you don’t need the power, you can delay them until you might need them. They are not scrapping them.”
The government announcement also calls for an acceleration of the closing of outdated coal-fired plants that use older, dirtier technology. But China is adding about 1 gigawatt in coal-fired capacity a week, Myllyvirta said, as companies that have easy access to loans from state banks build new plants.
That is in stark contrast to the United States, the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter, where it has become increasingly difficult to build new coal-fired plants under the Obama administration.
Last year, almost 14 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity was retired in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration in Washington. At the same time, there are only six new coal-fired plants on the drawing boards in the United States through at least the next five years, with a total capacity of less than 2 gigawatts, according to the agency.