(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LITTLETON, Colorado: Global emissions from coal-fired power typically dip to their lowest point of the year during March and April as use of the fuel for heating drops off after the northern hemisphere winter.

But this year China's mammoth power and manufacturing systems may single-handedly reverse historical pollution trends if authorities unveil stimulus packages aimed at reviving industrial output in the spring.

China's economic growth has stalled since 2022 due to a lingering debt crisis within its critical property sector, but Beijing is expected to announce new measures and incentives at parliamentary meetings next month that could spark an aggressive rebound in business activity.

Analysts expect China to deploy fiscal tools such as tax cuts and direct government loans to revive investment and spending in key areas of the economy from next month.

If successful, the measures may crank up consumption across myriad industries that collectively could raise overall power use and emissions in the world's top polluter.

In turn, given the current delicate state of the economy, power producers will likely opt to use the cheapest fuel sources available when increasing baseload power generation, which in China's case means more coal.

And as China accounts for nearly 60% of worldwide coal use in power generation, more coal use in China means more global use of the world's dirtiest power fuel.


Coal generated a record 5,760 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in China in 2023, which was 6% up from 2022's total, data from energy think tank Ember shows.

Due to rapidly rising electricity generation from renewables, coal's share of the total generation mix dropped to 62.1% last year, its lowest share since at least 2015.

But if power producers anticipate a sustained climb in overall energy use by businesses and factories, they will likely rely heavily on coal-fired power stations to deliver the bulk of any generation increase to ensure round-the-clock power availability at the lowest possible cost.

Higher coal use will in turn result in higher coal emissions from power producers.

In 2023, China's total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power generation hit 5.56 billion metric tons, an all-time high that was nearly 6% greater than 2022's record.

With coal use largely declining globally outside of China, China's share of total coal emissions climbed to a record 64.4% in 2023 and could creep higher still in 2024 if the country's power sector supply growth remains coal-oriented.


China's power producers do have other options for dispatchable power generation instead of coal, as the country boasts the world's largest hydro dam system and the second-largest fleet of nuclear reactors behind the United States.

China's power firms can also deploy more gas-fired electricity, which is cleaner than coal, and accounted for about 3.1% of its total electricity generation in 2023.

Solar and wind facilities can also help generate intermittent power for electricity production, and accounted for around 14% of China's electricity last year.

Generation capacity from solar and wind sites is growing faster than any other power source in China, so renewables will continue to account for a steadily growing share of China's total generation pie.

Nonetheless, coal looks set to retain a central role in China's power systems for the foreseeable future, and if utilities come under pressure to rapidly lift electricity output to meet rising factory use, coal will be the primary fuel used.

And that means that even if coal-fired generation outside of China drops off this spring as heating needs wane, total global coal use - and emissions - could still climb due to higher coal utilisation in China. The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.

(Reporting by Gavin Maguire; Editing by Jamie Freed)