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China is promoting coal-fired power, while the ruling Communist Party is trying to revive a sluggish economy, giving warnings Beijing is putting back efforts to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions from the largest global source.
Official plans call for increasing coal production capacity by 300 million tonnes this year, according to news reports. This corresponds to 7% of last year’s production of 4.1 billion tonnes, which was an increase of 5.7% compared to 2020.
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China is one of the largest investors in wind and solar energy, but nervous leaders called for more coal power after economic growth slowed last year and shortages caused power outages and factory shutdowns. Russia’s attack on Ukraine increased fears that foreign oil and coal supplies could be disrupted.
“This mentality of ensuring energy security has become dominant and trumps carbon neutrality,” said Li Shuo, a senior global political adviser to Greenpeace. “We are moving into a relatively unfavorable period of climate action in China.”
Officials are facing political pressure to ensure stability as President Xi Jinping prepares to try to break with tradition and assign himself a third five-year term as ruling party leader this fall.
Coal is important for “energy security,” Cabinet officials said at a April 20 meeting approving plans to expand production capacity, according to Caixin, a business news magazine.
The ruling party is also building power plants to inject money into the economy and revive growth, which fell to 4% from a year earlier in the last quarter of 2021, down from the full-year 8.1% expansion.
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Governments have promised to try to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Leaders say what they really want is a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Researchers say that even if the world reaches the 2-degree target of the Paris Climate Pact of 2015 and the Glasgow Follow-up Agreement of 2021, it will still lead to higher seas, stronger storms, extinction of plants and animals and more people dying of heat, smog and infectious diseases.
China is the largest producer and consumer of coal. Global trends depend on what Beijing is doing.
The Communist Party has rejected binding emission commitments citing its economic development needs. Beijing has avoided joining governments that promised to phase out the use of coal power.
In a speech in 2020 to the UN, Xi said that carbon emissions will peak in 2030, but he announced no target for the amount. Xi said China is aiming for carbon neutrality or to remove just as much from the atmosphere by planting trees and other tactics that industry and households emit by 2060.
China accounts for 26.1% of global emissions, more than double the US share of 12.8% according to the World Resources Institute. Rhodium Group, a research firm, says China emits more than all developed economies combined.
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Per person, China’s 1.4 billion people on average emit the equivalent of 8.4 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the WRI. That is less than half the US average of 17.7 tonnes, but more than the EU’s 7.5 tonnes.
China has abundant supplies of coal and produced more than 90% of the 4.4 billion tons it burned last year. More than half of its oil and gas is imported, and executives see it as a strategic risk.
China’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 appears to be on track, but using more coal “could jeopardize this, or at least slow it down and make it more expensive,” said Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigations Agency in an e-mail. mail.
Promoting coal will make emissions “much higher than they need to be” in the peak year of 2030, Perry said.
“This step is completely contrary to science,” she said.
Beijing has spent tens of billions of dollars on building solar and wind farms to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas and clean up its smog-stricken cities. China accounted for about half of global investment in wind and solar energy by 2020.
Nevertheless, coal is expected to supply 60% of its energy in the near future.
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Beijing is cutting millions of jobs to shrink its inflated, state-owned coal mining industry, but production and consumption are still rising.
Authorities say they are reducing carbon emissions per capita. unit of economic output. The government reported a 3.8% reduction last year, better than 2020’s 1%, but a decline from a 5.1% cut in 2017.
Last year’s total energy consumption increased 5.2% compared to 2020, after a revival of global demand for Chinese exports triggered a production boom, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
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Stimulus costs can also increase carbon production if it pays to build more bridges, train stations and other public works. It would promote carbon-intensive steel and cement production.
China’s coal-fired power plants run at about half their capacity on average, but building more creates jobs and economic activity, Greenpeace’s Li said. He said that although power is not needed now, local leaders are under pressure to make them pay for themselves.
“It locks China into a more low-carbon path,” Li said. “It’s very difficult to fix.”