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China pledged to cut emissions, then went on a coal spree


Chinese officials realize that the country’s renewable energy resources are insufficient — and too intermittent — to ease dependence on coal in the near future. Zhang cited recent problems with energy grid failures in Texas as a prime example of what Chinese officials don’t want to see happen in their country.

China’s National People’s Congress meetings, which ended in March, were shrouded in both a real and figurative haze about how strong its climate ambitions really are and how quickly the country can wean itself from its main source of energy — coal.

During the Congress, air pollution returned to Beijing with a vengeance, hitting the highest levels since January 2019, as the economy hummed out of the pandemic. Steel, cement and heavy manufacturing, predominantly backed by coal power, boosted China’s carbon dioxide emissions 4 percent in the second half of 2020 compared to the same pre-pandemic period the year before. At the same time, the goals in the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan on energy intensity, carbon intensity and renewables were hazy as well, little more than vague commitments to tackle carbon dioxide emissions.

Coal remains at the heart of China’s flourishing economy. In 2019, 58 percent of the country’s total energy consumption came from coal, which helps explain why China accounts for 28 percent of all global CO2 emissions. And China continues to build coal-fired power plants at a rate that outpaces the rest of the world combined. In 2020, China brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power into operation, more than three times what was brought on line everywhere else.

A total of 247 gigawatts of coal power is in planning or development, nearly six times Germany’s entire coal-fired capacity. China also has proposed additional new coal plants that, if built, would generate 73.5 gigawatts of power, more than five times the 13.9 gigawatts proposed in the rest of the world combined. Last year, Chinese provinces granted construction approval to 47 gigawatts of coal power projects, more than three times the capacity permitted in 2019.In 2019, 58% of the country’s total energy consumption came from coal, which helps explain why China accounts for 28% of all global CO2 emissions.

China has pledged that its emissions will peak around 2030, but that high-water mark  still would mean that the country is generating huge quantities CO2 — 12.9 billion to 14.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually for the next decade, or as much as 15 percent per year above 2015 levels, according to a Climate Action Tracker analysis.

This continued reliance on coal highlights the dichotomy between China’s overriding goal of fostering economic growth to lift the living standards of its 1.44 billion people and the country’s desire to cut CO2 emissions. In recent months, China’s leadership has signaled a move toward deeper decarbonization by reiterating its Paris Agreement pledge of a 2030 emissions peak and by vowing to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, the latter goal outlined by leader Xi Jinping in September to much global fanfare.

Whether China can flatten its carbon emissions in the next decade remains to be seen, and its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 depends heavily on increasing reliance on renewable energy and nuclear power, as well as major technological advances in areas such as carbon capture-and-storage. At this point, China’s coal dependence threatens both its long-term decarbonization plans and global efforts to limit temperatures increases to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the short term, the Communist Party’s chief concern remains how to grow the economy by around 6 percent per year. And, as identified in its latest Five-Year Plan, a top risk to China’s aim of maintaining a “moderately prosperous society” remains a lack of energy to drive its economy.

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