China is approving plans for new coal power plant capacity at the fastest rate since 2015, in a sign that pressure to stimulate the economy is undermining a transition towards cleaner energy sources. New coal plant projects proposed this year in China would add more than 40GW to the country’s power supply, according to new data – comparable to the entire existing fleet of South Africa. The news will fuel concerns that urgent efforts to stimulate economies devastated by virus lockdowns will push global emissions to levels higher than those recorded before Covid-19.

Survey data from the Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air also show that China approved the construction of more coal power plant capacity in the period to mid-June than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined. China is already the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and pollution levels there have quickly rebounded after lockdown.

“It is very concerning if China goes ahead and builds this degree or quantity of coal fired power,” said Sam Geall at the University of Sussex and editor of China and the Environment . “It could lead to a disaster in terms of the climate.” China’s energy policy will be crucial to determining the success of the Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to less than 2C. The new coal plants, often used by regional and provincial governments as a means to stimulate their economies, threatens to compromise environmental targets set by China’s central government.

“In the past year or so, we seem to be seeing quite mixed messages coming from the centre on the future of coal,” added Mr Geall. Last week six Chinese ministries stated the need to “consolidate the work of resolving excess coal production”, signalling Beijing’s apparent concern over the pace of new proiects.