China doubles coal consumption as energy crisis bites



China has ramped up spending on coal in the face of severe weather, a domestic energy crisis and soaring global fuel prices – raising concerns that Beijing’s policies could hamper the fight against climate change.

The country is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases that drive global warming, and President Xi Jinping has pledged to reduce coal use from 2026 as part of a wide range of climate promises.

Beijing has committed to peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

China’s total carbon emissions have fallen for four consecutive quarters on the back of the economic slowdown, research by climate monitor Carbon Brief reported in early September.

But at the same time, slowing growth has led to authorities relying on chimney industries in an effort to boost the economy.

Pressure to subsidize coal power – which still makes up most of China’s energy supply – has worried analysts who warn it will make the eventual transition to an energy mix dominated by renewables more difficult.

Scared by power shortages last fall, Chinese authorities in the spring ordered coal producers to add 300 million tons of mining capacity this year — the equivalent of an extra month of coal production for the country.

In just the first quarter of 2022, regulators approved the equivalent of half the capacity of an all-coal-fired power plant approved in 2021, according to Greenpeace.

– incompetence –

Authorities have also been burning and mining more coal in recent weeks in order to meet rising demand for air conditioners and to offset shrinking hydroelectric dams during China’s hottest summer.

Premier Li Keqiang in June called for “releasing advanced coal power, as far as possible, and implementing long-term coal supply.”

The Independent Climate Action Tracker warns that even the most “mandatory” climate targets set by Beijing will be in line with global warming of between three and four degrees Celsius before the end of the century – well above the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming. to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

To achieve this goal, the report said, China would “need to reduce emissions as soon as possible and before 2030” – as well as “reduce consumption of coal and fossil fuels at a much faster rate than currently planned.”

Beijing’s unwillingness to give up coal stems in part from inefficiencies in the power grid that prevent the transfer of excess power across regions.

Coal and gas give local officials a ready source of energy, and are, in effect, “the only way for local officials to avoid energy shortages,” energy researcher Laurie Myleverta wrote in a Carbon Briefing.

– ‘A decisive political year’ –

China has made real progress in building renewable energy capacity.

The country’s current operational solar capacity accounts for nearly half of the global total, according to the San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization Global Energy Monitoring (GEM).

But unlike wind or sunlight, coal and gas stocks can be held for extended periods of time and deployed as needed, giving local authorities a sense of security.

However, building more coal facilities would mean less focus on fixing problems with the grid, Milliverta said in comments to AFP, warning plant owners would have the impulse to “slow the transition process as they would have an interest in leveraging their entirely new assets.”

At the same time, the central government wants to “avoid the widespread power outages, which we saw last winter in the northeastern provinces, in this politically crucial year for Xi,” Byford Tsang, senior policy advisor at the E3G Climate Research Center, told AFP. .

President Xi is expected to secure an unprecedented third term in power at a grand meeting of the Communist Party next month.

The skyrocketing international energy prices driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also prompted Beijing to support domestic coal production, Tsang said, noting a 17.5 percent drop in coal imports in the first half of this year compared to the previous year.

GEM analysts said expanding coal capacity as a quick fix runs counter to “the immediate annual reductions in coal use called for by the United Nations and leading research organizations.”

GEM said all of the proposed new mines in China could collectively release up to six million tons of greenhouse gas methane each year once commissioned. This is roughly equivalent to Austria’s annual methane emissions, according to World Bank data.

“The more coal China makes now, the harder it is to finance and deliver renewable energy projects later,” Wu Jinghan, head of the Climate and Energy Project at Greenpeace East Asia, told AFP.

“The longer we wait to transition, the steeper the transitional path becomes,” Wu said. “This means more sabotage and higher financial and environmental risks.”

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