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China has ‘no other choice’ but to rely on coal power for now, official says


BEIJING — China has ambitious goals for cutting its carbon emissions, but it won’t be abandoning coal power anytime soon as it keeps its eye firmly on economic targets.

A coal fired power plant in Jiayuguan, Gansu province, China, on Thursday, April 1, 2021.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Xi Jinping said in September that the country’s carbon emissions would begin to decline by 2030, and he said the country will reach carbon neutrality by 2060 — in four decades.

In the meantime, policymakers are making clear that economic growth remains a top priority — and that growth depends largely on coal power. Beijing has a GDP target of 6% this year, a level which analysts say would allow authorities to tackle long-term problems such as the country’s high debt levels.ADVERTISINGMany developing countries don’t even have electricity. In this situation, if you don’t use coal, what will you use?

“China’s energy structure is dominated by coal power. This is an objective reality,” said Su Wei, deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission. CNBC translated his Mandarin-language comments, which he made late last week following Xi’s separate remarks at a U.S.-led global leaders climate summit.

“Because renewable energy (sources such as) wind and solar power are intermittent and unstable, we must rely on a stable power source,” Su said. “We have no other choice. For a period of time, we may need to use coal power as a point of flexible adjustment.”

He added that coal is readily available, while renewable energy needs to develop further in China.

Funding coal power outside China

Separately, on Tuesday, when asked by CNBC whether Beijing might follow South Korea in its pledge to stop public financing of coal-powered plants overseas, China’s ecology ministry indicated that China’s funding of coal power in the developing world will continue.

“China has supported some developing countries in the construction of coal-fired plants overseas,” Li Gao, director general of the ministry’s department of climate change, told reporters in Mandarin that CNBC translated. “China provides this support according to the local situation.”WATCH NOWVIDEO05:25Expert: U.S.-China competition on energy efficiency may be a good thing

“Many developing countries don’t even have electricity,” he said. “In this situation, if you don’t use coal, what will you use?”

According to the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China together funded $474 million worth of coal-sector projects outside China in 2020 alone.

The same report indicated that China’s financing of energy projects beyond its borders has declined steadily since 2016, however.

Li said that coal accounted for 56.8% of China’s domestic energy generation in 2020, down from 72.4% 15 years ago. As of last year, China was the world’s heaviest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit founded at MIT. The United States was second, and India was third.

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