China has refrained from making any new commitments to tackle climate change at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, but its past pledges remain under question.
As world leaders gathered in Glasgow, all eyes were on China – the world’s biggest polluter – to assure the world about its plans to address climate change. President Xi Jinping skipped the COP26 summit, addressing it only through a written message, which was short and vague.
“We will speed up the transition to green and low-carbon energy, vigorously develop renewable energy, and plan and build large wind and photovoltaic power stations,” Xi Jinping’s message read.
China’s commitment to reduce its use of coal in the energy sector will be on everyone’s mind at the COP26 conference. Xi mentioned coal only once in his written address.
“In the past 10 years, China has eliminated 120 million kilowatts of coal-fired power from outdated installed capacity. China has installed the first batch of large-scale wind power with an installed capacity of about 100 million kilowatts. The photovoltaic base projects have started in an orderly manner recently,” Xi Jinping had said in a virtual address at the G20 summit in Rome last week.
In 2020, Xi Jinping announced during his virtual address at the United Nations General Assembly that China will become a carbon-neutral country by 2060. At the assembly, Xi also announced that China will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.
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China’s energy woes
There has been a significant shift towards a ‘green economy’. China was the first to embrace green technologies to tackle air pollution in its cities. Beijing has included reduction of carbon emissions in its domestic policy documents.
The 14th five-year plan says China will “orderly develop offshore wind power, accelerate the construction of hydropower bases in Southwest China, safely and steadily promote the construction of coastal nuclear power, build a number of complementary clean energy bases, and increase the proportion of non-fossil energy in total energy consumption to about 20%.”
China’s words and actions don’t match up. A major energy shortage has consumed its biggest cities and Coal is once again the answer.
“China is expanding mines to produce 220 million metric tons a year of extra coal, a nearly 6 percent rise from last year,” The New York Times reported. Large and small coal mining operations are being revived across parts of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi where some 170 mines have been told to expand capacity.
Some experts believe that China’s recent energy shortage results from the ban on importing Australian coal because of trade tensions between the two countries. But it doesn’t entirely explain China’s energy shortage.
A dataset from China suggests coal from Australia accounts for 20% to 30% of imported coal, only 6% of which is used for energy consumption. A big share of the imported coal is coking coal, which is used in smelting. Following the shortage, China is relying on Russia and Mongolia as an alternate supplier for its energy needs. Russia exported 24.15 million tons of coal to China in the first half of 2021.
In December 2020, the Chinese government attributed the current shortage to rebound in industrial activity after Covid-19 and the “extreme cold weather” in parts of Northeast China.
The state media has referred to a campaign to ensure energy supply to major cities after recent long power cuts. But experts in China aren’t happy with the provincial governments falling back on coal to plug the energy shortage.
“However, local governments are short-sighted and irrational. To make these investments, they must be mentally prepared: high-carbon lock-in will increase asset idleness and asset waste. After a few years of investment, coal power cannot be sold in the end. How can the cost be recovered? This is an issue that investors and local governments need to worry about,” said Pan Jiahua, deputy director of the National Climate Change Expert Committee.
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Going back on promises
Even though Beijing has allowed some debate on climate change in recent years, it has stopped attempts to develop mass movements among its younger population. Ou Hongyi’s story is a good example.
The 17-year-old became the first teenager in China to start a Greta Thunberg-inspired ‘Friday for Future’ climate strike. Since 2018, provincial authorities have tried to create new hurdles for Ou. She was told to stop her activism or else she would be barred from resuming her studies at the Guangxi Normal University. Authorities have even forced her to take a psychological test before she can apply for readmission.
The US has reached out to China on multiple occasions to bring Beijing onboard the climate negotiations. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry visited China twice in hope of breaking the ice on climate negotiations.
Kerry’s visit to Shanghai yielded very little and the second visit to Tianjin was largely a failure.
“The joint statement issued in Shanghai had a few notable U.S. diplomatic wins. Among them, it’s the first time that the founding principle of global climate politics – common but differentiated responsibilities – was not cited in a U.S.-China bilateral statement,” Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia, said in an interview.
“Without international engagement, China will be under no rush to cut a profitable area of its overseas business,” Shuo added about China’s latest commitment to stop building coal plants abroad.
Besides the joint statement during Kerry’s visit, there was limited progress on bringing China to participate in global climate action. China believes it is doing a lot more to tackle climate change than the US.
Xi Jinping’s absence at Glasgow and renewed focus on burning coal suggests China is going back on its bold climate pledges.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)