On September 22, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a historic pledge to the United Nations General Assembly: by 2060, China, the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, would achieve carbon neutrality. The goal itself was ambitious but equally remarkable was the timing of the speech, made with the world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, President Xi tied his pledge to the crisis, imploring the international community to achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era.
As governments worldwide have deployed stimulus and other measures to bolster economic activity, this green recovery aspiration would be put to the test. The EU, for example, declared that the Post-COVID-19 Europe will be greener, more digital, more resilient, while the United States was largely agnostic to climate change concerns in its early stimulus efforts. Would China's efforts be brown, green, or both?
Using commercial imagery (electro-optical) and open radar data, and with the coronavirus as a backdrop, this two-part series explores China's progress towards its own carbon goals. First, we examine how the construction of coal-fired power plants has continued across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the coronavirus pandemic slowed down most construction activities. Next, we analyze China's progress in its afforestation efforts. The greenest of green measures, China's ambitious tree-planting programs were originally designed for anti-desertification and anti-soil-erosion purposes. Today, the technique has been tied to climate goals due to the perceived carbon sink benefits of forests.
Coal Power Development in China
Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, coal has fundamentally fueled the country's growth and development. Today, China is the world's largest producer, consumer, and importer of coal. At its peak, coal supported more than 70% of China's total energy needs.1 Over the last two decades, however, China's coal consumption as a percentage of its overall energy portfolio has waned, a function of the country's increasing reliance on renewable energy sources.2,3 Accordingly, coal has dropped to around 57% of China's energy mix, and utilization rates have dipped at coal plants across China, passing below 50% in 2015.
Built Capacity Additions and Utilization in China's Coal Plants
The Roots of China's Coal-Power Overcapacity and the Traffic Light Policy
The end result has been overcapacity in Chinese coal: more new plants, operating at lower rates. China's coal-power overcapacity can be traced to the late 2000s and early 2010s. In response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, China's stimulus program extended cheap credit for new plants and allowed provinces to approve new builds.4, 5 An overwhelming surge in coal plants prompted new policies to rein in coal development, but results were mixed at best. A new Traffic Light System meant to cut down on new coal in certain provinces was mostly ineffective, as the number of provinces receiving green light ratings--able to build coal without restrictions--increased from 2016 to 2019.6 COVID-19 only accelerated this trend. From January to June 2020, provinces awarded permits to 17.0 GW of new plants; by the end of 2020, new permits had reached 36.9 GW, more than the prior three years combined, per a new monitoring report by Global Energy Monitor, CREA, Sierra Club, Climate Risk Horizons, GreenID, and Eskosfer.7 Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, China further relaxed the risk ratings of its traffic light rules, giving the green light to all but six regions.8, 9
Together, this data tentatively suggests that during the pandemic, China turned to coal to stimulate the domestic economy.10 However, this does not tell the whole story: receiving a permit or approval does not mean that actual construction began or was continued during the COVID and post-COVID periods.
To corroborate a possible uptick in China's coal buildout during 2020, we utilize commercial satellite imagery and open radar data analyzed within Google Earth Engine, to see if the approved projects commenced and proceeded as planned during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article identifies and analyzes five plants that were approved/permitted in March 2020, including four new construction projects (Sites 1 - 4) and one upgraded and expanded existing project (Site 5). Sites were selected where sufficient imagery and data were available.
Though our imagery analysis cannot speak to buildout across all of China, it does indicate that coal construction proceeded rapidly at these plants during 2020, pointing to at least localized coal build-outs during China's economic stimulus campaign.
To examine these sites, we use two tools. First, we deploy 1) an activity and change alerting and detection service created within Google Earth Engine, using open synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data collected by Sentinel-1. This SAR activity/change service works by detecting changes in radar backscatter over time caused by moving vehicles, construction activity, or natural phenomena. We supplement SAR activity tracking with commercial electro-optical imagery analysis.
Site 1: Diantou Town Baishi Village, Siwan Village (Lat: 35.657848, Lon: 109.050538)
Satellite imagery indicates that within only one month land was completely flattened for the construction of the Diantou power plant. Fresh tracks are visible in the March 2020 image but are completely absent when compared to imagery from only one month prior, in February 2020. Additionally, the SAR data from Sentinel-1 indicates activity at the site surged between March 2020 and June 2020 around the time when the permit was granted. More simply, the SAR script is likely detecting early post-permit activity at the site such as vehicle movement, surveying, and other building activity.
Site 2: Shanxi Fu County Power Station Unit 1 (Lat: 35.858656, Lon: 109.2167)
As seen in the electro-optical satellite imagery from December 2019 to July 2020, the west-tail power plant has expanded. New cooling towers were developed in the northeast area of the east-tail power plant to meet the water supply demand for air-cooled, coal-fired facilities. Roads were also built in the northeast area for future project development. Additionally, SAR data indicates activity at the site surged starting in March 2020, corroborating the electro-optical imagery analysis. The SAR script detected medium activity around permit time in March 2020 then a sharp spike in September 2020, which is likely a heavier construction phase.
Site 3: Yanghuopan Power Station (Lat: 39.052543, Lon: 110.519944)
From August 2019 to January 2021, this project has made significant construction progress. Two cooling towers and corresponding support facilities were built from the old site. A highway on the west side of the plant was constructed and opened to traffic. The project also expanded to the east, reflected by the newly-built groundwork for power plants and interconnected roads. Once again, the SAR detected activity around and after permit time in March and May 2020, then heavier construction activity after August 2020.
Site 4: CPI Baiyinhua Power Station (Lat: 44.804701, Long: 118.513627)
Using electro-optical imagery from January 2020 to January 2021, we found this project made significant progress in construction, and radar data corroborates the construction of two cooling towers with corresponding support facilities. Again, as with the aforementioned sites, the SAR script indicates a significant increase in activity at the site beginning in March 2020 and a rise throughout 2020.
Site 5: Fugu Qingshuichuan power station (Lat: 39.203699, Long: 111.117694)
Electro-optical imagery analysis confirms the first stage of the construction for the expansion of new units or sections possibly began in March 2020 and ended in April 2020, and SAR data from Sentinel-1, which indicates an increase in activity during that time frame, corroborates the electro-optical imagery findings. The electro-optical images also confirm land was cleared for construction purposes between August 2019 and September 2020. SAR data (via the SAR script) also shows a second uptick in activity from February 2021 well into March 2021. This could indicate a second phase of construction of the expansion projects. The drop in activity in late 2020 with an uptick in early 2021 is unique compared to the other sites.
All five coal sites have seen significant construction progress since March 2020. Though our analysis does not preclude the possibility that China promoted a green recovery from COVID-19 in other ways in 2020, it does indicate that COVID-19 had little impact in slowing the buildout of coal-fired power plants at these sites, which represent a significant expansion of coal-fired power capacity. This coal buildout and the major coal approvals in March of 2020 stand in tension with China's long-term climate goals, and these five coal power plants will have a meaningful negative impact on China's ability to achieve its 2060 pledge of carbon neutrality.
This is especially true given China's current Five Year Plan (14th FYP, 2021-2025), which aims for green transformation but is short on some specifics and nominally commits to the continued use of "clean" coal. Reaching China's more ambitious targets will likely take more extensive emissions reductions and action on coal power, including aggressive retirement of coal-fired power capacity.
SAR Tool Summary
Permit and construction progress is often gleaned from press releases, company filings, trade group updates, and other unstructured reporting. While valuable, these reports can often be outdated, incomplete, or hard to find. The SAR script/tool developed for this project within Google Earth Engine assists us in developing consistent and objective alerts on construction timelines and activity spikes or declines programmatically and at scale (all-weather revisit time from radar imagery is often higher than electro-optical imagery).
1. Dong, K.Y., Sun, R.J., Li, H., Jiang, H.D., 2017. A review of China's energy consumption structure and outlook based on a long-range energy alternatives modeling tool. Petrol. Sci.14, 214 and 227.
2. BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2020), https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2020-full-report.pdf
3. Qi, Ye, Stern, Nicholas, Wu, Tong, Lu, Jiaqi and Green, Fergus (2016) China's post-coal growth. Nature Geoscience, 9 (8). pp. 564-566. ISSN 1752- 0894