China stays on decarbonization path despite ad hoc rise in coal use

China’s efforts on climate change are once again at the center of a three-way tug of war between the world’s need to quickly address climate change, the country’s own development needs and the global dependence on China’s massive manufacturing machine.

As the COP26 climate conference got underway in Glasgow, there are concerns that China, the most populous country in the world and the second largest economy, may be forced to burn more coal than expected over the next few months.

For a variety of reasons, China is facing severe power shortages at a challenging time. Domestically, the cold of winter is coming and with it the need for heat. Abroad, the holiday gift-giving is around the corner and factories need to ramp up production so that people can buy presents to put under Christmas trees. These are just two of the many factors that are driving demand for power now and over the next few months.

Still, the news that China has to expand its coal capacity for a while was met with mixed reactions and concerns, which though understandable, may be generally overstated.

A number of factors come into play.

For one, the reasons of the power shortage are not related to climate policy but with supply chain constraints that have made it more challenging to generate the power that everybody in the country needs.

For another, more coal capacity does not necessarily mean more generation of carbon dioxide.  China is actually moving toward cleaner use of coal and renewables. Yes, China remains the biggest consumer of coal in the world but it is well aware of this and is also aware of the reality that the status quo is unsustainable for the world — and China is part of the world.

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A third consideration is that President Xi Jinping has repeated time and again the country’s goals for reducing carbon emissions and the intensity of carbon in the economy, with targets set for 2030 and significant reductions by 2060.

For the foreseeable future, climate remains a linchpin of China’s outward focus and a key consideration of both the country’s growth blueprint and foreign relations

For the foreseeable future, climate remains a linchpin of China’s outward focus and a key consideration of both the country’s growth blueprint and foreign relations.

It is impossible to get away from the reality that, over the next few months, China has little choice but to address the power shortages by generating more electricity for which the current infrastructure is heavily dependent on coal.

The need for development has not gone away and neither has demand for all kinds of goods from around the world. And much of China gets very cold in winter and people need heat. In many cities, heat is centrally provided and that comes from coal plants. At least in the very near term, the next few months, China may need to burn more coal to address power shortages.

On a more positive note, this is a very short-term problem. In the long term, China’s commitments to fundamentally reduce emissions and shift its energy composition towards renewables remain unchanged as does the pathway that the country has set and outlined to get there.

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In an update released recently, China said that it will continue along the path it had outlined earlier. The country still plans to hit peak emissions by 2030 and reduce them to net zero 30 years after that. By 2030, the goal is to reduce the carbon intensity in the economy by 65 percent.

The updated plan includes modest upgrades to previously announced pathways. Among other things, China now plans to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2030, and has increased a reforestation target by a third to 6 billion cubic meters of forest. 

By necessity, the effort will be multifaceted. For instance, the aluminium sector has set a target of hitting peak carbon emissions by 2025 and to reduce emissions from there by 40 percent by 2040. The steel sector plans to hit the peak at the same time and hit reductions of 30 percent by 2030.

The short-term need for coal is not likely to move the needle much on long-term efforts to hit the goal of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 C (and definitely no more than 2 C), as outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that 194 countries have agreed to.

Forward progress on the long-term push and goals is much more significant.

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The author is managing director of Bahati, an editorial services agency based in Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.