NORTHAMPTON, Massachusetts (Project community) – China is stuck between a fossil fuel past and a renewable energy future. The country now generates 53% of the world's coal electricity. At the same time, it is the world's leading manufacturer and market for solar modules, wind turbines and electric vehicles.
Whether China can free itself from its decades-long dependence on coal will not only determine its own ecological future, but above all the prospects of the earth in view of the worsening climate crisis.
Emergency teams fight forest fires in Turkey, southern Europe and US states such as California and Hawaii. Scientists say particularly hot temperatures in some places made droughts worse and helped create the conditions for fires to spread this summer. Photo: AP
China's leaders began to see the need for change in the early 2000s. The largely coal-driven policy of "economic growth at any cost" had brought great prosperity, but the collateral damage to the country's air and water was unacceptably high. Environmentalists called for the "construction of an ecological civilization" in which nature and humans would find a harmonious balance. And when President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he immediately took it on.
In quick succession, the Chinese government declared a "war on pollution", drew up separate air, water and land action plans that allocated $ 1 trillion to clean up the environment, shut down inefficient coal-fired power plants and invested hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy development. It has also made domestic electric vehicle manufacturing and sales a high priority and has developed a nationwide carbon trading system.
In order to limit global warming to well below the "catastrophic" 2 ° C, China must close 600 of its 1,082 coal-fired power plants by 2030. China better start flipping its massive carbon ship now.
Worrying for China and the planet, this forward momentum now appears to be shifting into reverse. Coal consumption, which decreased every year between 2014 and 2016, has steadily increased since then. The same is true of carbon dioxide emissions, which increased by 1.5% to 1.7% in 2020 even during the pandemic-induced slowdown.
China has to do better. The 2019 United Nations Emissions Gap Report concluded that capping global warming to 1.5 ° C from pre-industrial levels would require a 55% reduction in global emissions from 2018 to 2030 levels. However, China added 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity in 2020, even if the rest of the world reduced its net capacity by 17.2 GW.
Worse, this climb is just the beginning. The Chinese government has approved the construction of an additional 36.9 GW of coal-fired power plant capacity, bringing the total under construction to 88 GW today. And proposals to build another 158.7 GW are in the pipeline, with total new capacity now being considered at 247 GW – more than the United States’s total installed base of 233.6 GW.
All new developments in fossil fuels should stop this year if the world wants to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 ° C.
More plants are likely to come. Powerful groups in the coal and energy industries are urging the government to increase China's current total capacity for coal-fired power plants from 1,080 GW to 1,200-1,300 GW over the next five years and up to 1,400 GW by 2035. A Global Energy Monitor (GEM) The report concludes that if China continues to expand its capacities by 2035 as proposed, “its coal-based power generation alone will be more than three times the global limit for the use of coal-based energy established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to contain global warming ”. well below 2 ° C. "
Why China Has Declined
What explains China's obvious return to its charcoal-addicted way?
First of all, the protests in Hong Kong, the trade war with the US and the coronavirus pandemic have diverted the focus of policymakers from environmental reform. Likewise, the slowdown in Chinese GDP growth and the rise in unemployment. The government has been more interested in stimulating traditional, energy-intensive industries like steel, iron and cement, while the provincial leaders have started building coal-fired power plants.
In addition, the recent US-China trade war has heightened Chinese concerns about energy security as the country imports 70% of its oil and 40% of its gas. And while China has gone all out on renewables, especially solar and wind, it cannot expand those sources fast enough to meet expected demand. Even the current power grid is unable to efficiently transfer this energy from far west China, where most of it is produced, to areas of high demand. Coal – abundant and relatively cheap – seems to many to be a reliable, proven source of energy.
After all, it is probably no coincidence that China's “coal relapse” came at a time when the US was absent from the international climate scene. While former President Barack Obama and Xi found common ground in the fight against global warming and set the stage for the 2015 Paris Agreement, the US withdrawal from the issue under President Donald Trump has likely also weakened China's engagement.
Which China will the world see in the next few years? That question is more pressing than ever in the light of a recent report from the International Energy Agency that advises that all new fossil fuel developments should stop this year if the world reaches net zero emissions by 2050 and hope for a cap the global temperature should have increased to 1.5 ° C.
Xi's announcement in September 2020 that China wants to become climate neutral by 2060 revived optimism. However, hopes that the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) published in March this year would outline the government's strategy for starting the decarbonization process have been dashed.
And at President Joe Biden's climate summit in April, Xi announced that China would “strictly control” coal-fired electricity consumption during the new five-year plan, but would not increase and “phase out” it until 2026.
This is a ruthlessly undemanding schedule. Climate experts from GEM, TransitionZero, and elsewhere calculate that limiting global warming to well below a "catastrophic" 2 ° C will require China to shut down 600 of its 1,082 coal-fired power plants by 2030. Carbon ship around now.
Daniel K. Gardner, co-organizer of the China Environmental Group at Princeton University's High Meadows Environmental Institute, is a retired professor of Chinese history and the environment at Smith College and the author of numerous books on China, including "Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction" and "Pollution in China: What everyone needs to know. "
Comment posted with the permission of Project Syndicate – Will China Give Up Its Coal Habits?
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