By Michael Lelyveld
China’s key industries are sending mixed signals on controlling carbon emissions as the government prepares to release new details of its climate change plans.
As the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases, China has been under pressure to improve on its emissions pledges in time for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
The meeting of some 200 countries, known as the Conference of Parties, or COP26, is seen as a watershed event for efforts to avert the worst effects of global warming.
A report in August by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world is already likely to reach the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2040, even if most nations meet their goals of achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.
In China’s most recent pledges last September, President Xi Jinping said the country would strive to hit its peak in carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions before 2060.
Despite rapid development of renewable energy sources, experts say that the 2060 target will be difficult because of China’s consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal.
Earlier this year, experts voiced disappointment with China’s failure to set deadlines for carbon reduction efforts in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), delaying specifics of its sectoral targets until the 15th Five-Year Plan (2026- 2030).
The delay sent a signal that the government would prioritize economic growth and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the near term, leaving the tougher tasks of environmental controls until later in the decade.
Those concerns have been largely borne out by the government’s call for more coal production to ease power shortages and support industrial production this year.
The country has also defied international pressure by continuing to build new coal-fired power plants during the current plan period.
On the second of two recent trips to China, U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry this week pressed Chinese officials to stop approving new coal plants.
Recent reviews of China’s progress by advocacy groups have been mixed.
On Aug. 25, the environmental group Greenpeace East Asia said that China’s provincial governments had approved 24 new coal power projects with 5.2 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity in the first half of the year. That represented a 79-percent decline from the year-earlier period, Bloomberg News said.
“Especially since Xi’s climate summit remarks, local governments have slowed approvals for new coal. But provinces are clearly still anticipating financial support on coal,” said Li Danqing, a Greenpeace East Asia project leader.
“China needs to urgently expedite its electricity transition,” the UK-based climate research group Ember said in a semiannual update report. China was responsible for 90 percent of the world’s growth in electricity demand from the first half of 2019 to the comparable period this year.
“As a result, China’s share of global coal generation rose from 50 percent in 2019 to 53 percent in H1-2021,” Ember said,
At the same time, the government has pressed key polluting industries like steel to accelerate carbon reduction plans in preparation for compliance with new national goals.
China’s steel industry, which accounts for about 15 percent of the country’s carbon emissions, according to Reuters, has been pushed to reach a peak by 2025, the Communist Party tabloid Global Times reported in March.
In attempts to curb industry excesses, the government has raised export tariffs on steel and set a goal of limiting annual output to not exceed the record 1.05 billion metric tons produced last year.
Despite the pressure, crude steel production through July was already 56 million tons ahead of the 2020 pace, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported, raising concerns that deep cuts and price hikes could be in the cards for the rest of the year.
As deadlines draw nearer, China’s climate and economic goals seem to be pulling in opposite directions. Statistical analyses of available data also appear to be reflecting the strains.
One example is a recent report for the UK-based website Carbon Brief, showing a “marked slowdown” in the growth of China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the second quarter, with an increase of just 1 percent from a year before, compared with a year-on-year rise of 15 percent in the first quarter reported earlier.
The figures suggested that China has already made major progress in curbing emissions in the April-June quarterly period.
“These shifts appear to reflect steps the government has taken to control financial vulnerabilities, particularly in the real estate sector, as well as to rein in further rapid increase in steel production,” said the report by veteran climate researcher Lauri Myllyvirta at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
The findings were based on official reports of domestic production, import and export of fossil fuels and cement, and commercial data on stocks of stored fuel, the analysis said.
But while the government has taken steps to discourage excessive property development and steel production, the readings based on year-to-year comparisons raise doubts about such a dramatic drop in CO2 growth rates.
Economists and energy experts have warned against drawing conclusions based on comparisons with the first quarter of 2020, when the country’s gross domestic product plunged by a record 6.8 percent due to the COVID-19 lockdown, according to NBS data.
“Comparing the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of 2020 is not useful as the first quarter of 2020 was the peak of the pandemic,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a principal senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute.
Equally suspect are comparisons to the second quarter of 2020 when GDP partially recovered with growth of 3.2 percent, far below the 6.2-percent growth rate of Q2 2019.
China may well have made progress in planning for reductions in C02 growth rates, but the results appear to be less than evident judging by official data on energy- intensive products like steel and cement.
Production of crude steel actually rose 7.8 percent in the second quarter from the first quarter, and the output of cement over the same period soared by a stunning 61.2 percent.
The quarter-to-quarter comparisons may have their own problems due to variations in winter weather and the Lunar New Year holiday period.
But the NBS data for the key construction materials make it hard to argue that China’s carbon emissions have markedly improved.
Steel production topped well over 90 million tons for every month this year reported through June. Even with a decline in July, seven-month output rose 8 percent from a year before.
Monthly rates for cement production have declined from May through July, but so far this year, output has climbed 10.4 percent.
Production of coal through July is up 4.9 percent and thermal power, fueled by coal and gas, has surged 14.7 percent. Total electricity generation was up 13.2 percent in the seven-month period.
Andrews-Speed said that total power output in the second quarter was marginally down compared with last year’s third and fourth quarters, “which is consistent with a slowing of the economy.”
The Carbon Brief report noted that China has continued to announce new investments in coal-based production capacity for the two largest CO2 emitters, the power sector and the iron and steel industry, “pointing to a continued mismatch with the country’s emissions goals.”