Second Opinion: What China's dangerous coal relapse means for the rest of the world

·6 min read
A border of red fog frames a photo of a worker standing next to machinery moving coal.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Chinatopix via Associated Press)

China is stuck between a fossil-fuel-dependent past and a future powered by renewable energy.

The country today generates 53% of the world’s coal-fired power. At the same time, it is the world’s leading manufacturer of — and market for — solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Whether China can free itself from its decades-old addiction to coal will determine not just its own environmental future but also Earth’s prospects in the face of the gathering climate crisis.

China’s leaders began to recognize the need for change in the early 2000s. The largely coal-fueled “economic growth at all costs” policy had brought great prosperity, but the collateral damage to the country’s air and water had grown unacceptably high. Environmental advocates called for “building an ecological civilization,” in which nature and humankind would find a harmonious balance. And when President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, he immediately took up the cause.

In quick succession, the Chinese government declared a “war on pollution”; drew up separate air, water and soil action plans committing $1 trillion to environmental cleanup; closed inefficient coal plants; and invested hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy development. It also made domestic manufacture and sales of electric vehicles a high priority and devised a nationwide carbon-trading system.

But that forward momentum now appears to have shifted into reverse. Coal consumption, which had decreased each year from 2014 to 2016, has since risen steadily. The same is true of carbon dioxide emissions, which increased by 1.5% to 1.7% even during the pandemic-induced slowdown in 2020.

The 2019 United Nations Emissions Gap Report concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels requires reducing global emissions by 55% from 2018 levels by 2030. But China added 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity in 2020 (a large power plant produces around 1 gigawatt), even as the rest of the world reduced its net capacity by 17.2 gigawatts.

Worse, this increase is only the beginning. The Chinese government has approved construction of an additional 36.9 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity, bringing the total under construction today to 88 gigawatts, with proposals to build an additional 158.7 gigawatts in the pipeline.

A Global Energy Monitor report concludes that if China continues to expand capacity to 1,400 gigawatts through 2035, as proposed, “its coal-power generation alone will be more than three times as large as the global limit on coal power use determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to keep global warming well below 2 degrees C.”

What explains China’s apparent return to its coal-addicted ways?

For starters, the protests in Hong Kong, the trade war with the U.S. and the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted Chinese policymakers’ focus away from environmental reform. So, too, has the slowdown in growth in China’s gross domestic product and the rise in unemployment. The government has been more interested in stimulating traditional, energy-intensive industries such as steel, iron and cement, while provincial leaders have embarked on a spree of constructing coal-fired power plants.

The recent U.S.-China trade war has further heightened Chinese concerns about energy security, given that the country imports roughly 70% of its oil needs and 40% of its gas requirements. And while China has gone all in on renewable energy, especially solar and wind, it cannot scale up these sources quickly enough to meet anticipated demand. Nor is the current electricity grid capable of transmitting this energy efficiently from China’s distant west, where most of it is produced, to high-demand areas. Coal — abundant and relatively inexpensive — seems to many a reliable, tried-and-true energy source.

Finally, it is probably not a coincidence that China’s coal relapse came at a time when the U.S. was absent from the international climate scene. Whereas former President Obama and Xi found common ground in the battle against global warming, setting the stage for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, U.S. disengagement from the issue under President Trump probably weakened China’s commitment, too.

Which China will the world see in the next several years? That question is more urgent than ever in light of a recent International Energy Agency report warning that all new fossil fuel development should be halted this year if the world is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and have any hope of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Xi’s announcement in September that China aims to become carbon-neutral by 2060 revived optimism. But those hoping that the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), released in March, would outline the government’s strategy for starting the decarbonization process were disappointed. And at President Biden’s climate summit in April, Xi announced that China would “strictly limit” the increase in coal-fired power consumption during the current five-year plan and “phase it down” only from 2026.

This is a recklessly unambitious timetable. Climate experts at Global Energy Monitor, TransitionZero and elsewhere calculate that limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius will require China to close 600 of its 1,082 coal plants by 2030. If they are right, China had better start turning its giant carbon ship around now.

The United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, this November are fast approaching. The U.S and China, together responsible for 40% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, must be all in if truly meaningful progress is to be made there. The recent meeting in Naples, Italy, of environment ministers from the Group of 20 nations proved disappointing; China showed no signs of changing direction, firmly resisting the call for member nations to phase out coal power and cease all international fossil fuel funding by 2025.

This is a moment when Biden must treat climate change as the existential threat that he says it is. He should propose a face-to-face summit with Xi. It won’t necessarily be a popular gesture politically for many Americans, but it’s an essential one.

Biden and Xi would find that one leader’s vision of an ecological civilization and the other’s mini-Green New Deal are stunningly similar in their goals — including expanding renewable energy resources, upgrading power grids, requiring all new buildings to meet strict energy-efficient standards and developing new-energy vehicles and public transit networks.

With encouragement from Biden, Xi may see that there is common ground on which the two nations can cooperate — and compete — in the battle to curb global warming.

Daniel K. Gardner, co-organizer of the China Environmental Group at Princeton University’s High Meadows Environmental Institute, is professor emeritus of Chinese history and environment at Smith College and the author of numerous books on China, including Environmental Pollution in China: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.