China’s decision to build more coal plants is a setback for climate action, but analysts say it could still meet its long-term emission reduction targets and may even have scope to raise its ambition at Cop26 in Glasgow.
In recent days, Beijing has announced a buildup of coal capacity to address the most severe power cuts in a decade, which have caused rolling blackouts in half its provinces.
This is of global concern, because China is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide with 29% of all emissions, more than the other G20 countries combined. If China cannot kick its addiction to coal, the world has no chance of reaching the Paris agreement goal of keeping global heating to well below 2C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, and premier, Li Keqiang, have made it clear that domestic energy security and economic development take priority. The government has ordered coalmines to increase production and made the first new coal-fired power plant announcement in more than a year.
At first sight, this seems at least a softening of China’s commitment to the climate cause, like a horrible case of deja-vu, a throwback to the first decade of the century when China was building new and bigger furnaces every week to power an economy growing at double-digit speed. It appears to complicate Beijing’s commitment to peak its emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2060. Some commentators fear it could jeopardise Cop26, because China is key to a successful outcome.
Veteran analysts, however, believe these fears are overblown. While the short-term consequences for global emissions are grim, in the long term this is likely to be a wobble rather than a fall. China, they say, can still hold to a positive course.
There are four main reasons for this less gloomy outlook. First, they say, the causes of China’s power cuts have been widely misunderstood. The energy crunch has little or nothing to do with pressure from climate policy. Coal supply has failed to meet demand largely because of price controls and policy missteps. If anything, this energy crunch has amplified the benefits of renewables, which are less vulnerable to market volatility.
Second, increased coal capacity is not the same as increased coal consumption, notes Lauri Myllyvirta, a lead analyst and China watcher at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. China can strengthen energy security with more coalmines and plants, but not all of this will need to be used if renewables take an increasing share of electricity generation. Xi , in his speech this week at the Kunming UN conference on biodiversity, emphasised that this would continue to be the case.
Third, Xi has reaffirmed China’s existing international commitment to achieve the “dual carbon goals” for 2030 and 2060. Rather than diluting his commitment, he framed it forcefully as a pragmatic and ambitious step to “upgrade the economy”.
Fourth, the climate remains a focus of diplomatic activity and is central to discussions with the US, the UK and Europe. At the conclusion of the EU-China climate and environment dialogue in 2020, China confirmed it would submit an upgraded national plan to the UN before the Glasgow summit.
The contents will be crucial. At successive climate talks, China’s influence has increased along with its greenhouse gases, which have tripled in 30 years. China is due to release two key domestic documents – a long-term framework and an action plan for the next 10 years. If they are unambitious, 1.5C will be impossible. If they show higher ambition, then Glasgow will suddenly seem a much more hopeful place.
Qin Yan, lead analyst at the financial data provider Refinitiv, said the newly announced increase in coal capacity restricted China’s scope for more ambition up to 2025, but that longer-term improvements were still possible. “I had hoped China would announce a cap of coal consumption, but this difficult now,” she said. “But I believe China may bring forward the year when emissions will peak. Domestic experts have suggested this may be possible in 2028. I have run the numbers and I also think that is possible.”
A strong signal is desperately needed. In spring, China’s CO2 emissions grew at their fastest pace in more than a decade as leaders tried to bounce back from the coronavirus lockdown with a splurge of investment in cement, steel and fossil fuels. The coal-fleet capacity rose by almost 30 gigawatts, outweighing all the cuts in the rest of the world.
Relations with the US are also more complicated, marked by discord over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea. Despite this, Xi participated in Joe Biden’s climate summit earlier this year and the two leaders made near simultaneous announcements of big climate steps at last month’s UN general assembly. Biden unveiled a plan to double climate support for poorer nations to $11.4bn, which will help to maintain international unity. Hours later, Xi promised to halt Chinese funding of overseas coal projects, which bought the world about three extra months to reach net zero.