By Michael Lelyveld
Two weeks after President Xi Jinping took part in the U.S.-sponsored climate summit of world leaders, it is hard to tell whether China has made a commitment to tougher carbon reduction deadlines or not.
In a carefully worded statement on April 22, Xi left it unclear whether China will go beyond pledges that he made last September to reach a peak in carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
Particular attention was paid to China’s largest source of carbon emissions — the country’s consumption of high- polluting coal.
While China is rapidly increasing its renewable energy capacity, it also continues to burn over half of the coal consumed in the world.
“The targets of carbon peak and carbon neutrality have been added to China’s overall plan for ecological conservation. We are now making an action plan and are already taking strong nationwide actions toward carbon peak,” Xi said at the summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.
“Support is being given to peaking pioneers from localities, sectors and companies.
“China will strictly control coal-fired generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period,” Xi said.
While some analysts saw positive signs in Xi’s pledge to “strictly limit the increase” in coal use during the 2021- 2025 period, they also voiced concern that the formula would still allow coal consumption to grow.
The plan to “phase it down” would put off the task of actual reductions until the next five-year plan for the 2026- 2030 period. By that time, coal use will have reached a higher plateau, making gradual cuts less effective in reducing future emissions.
Climate experts say China’s plans are too slow to get started with actual reductions.
“Many provinces believe that the use of fossil energy can continue to be substantially increased before 2030. They are even planning to reach a new and higher peak of carbon emissions during the 14th Five-Year Plan and will only consider the decline after reaching the ‘new peak,'” said Jinnan Wang, dean of the Environmental Planning Institute of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), China Energy News reported in January.
Last year, China’s coal consumption rose 0.6 percent to 4.04 billion metric tons, according to Reuters, even though coal’s share of total energy fell from 57.7 percent to 56.8 percent.
The trends appear likely to continue this year.
Although the National Energy Administration estimates that coal’s share of total energy will fall below 56 percent, the China Electricity Council expects power consumption to rise by 7-8 percent, driving coal volumes higher, Argus Media reported.
S&P Global Platts Analytics estimates that coal-fired power generation will peak “by 2027,” giving a boost to coal consumption for another 6-7 years.
Xi’s summit statement also said nothing specific about a key issue for environmental advocacy groups — the continuing construction of coal-fired power plants.
“Xi’s commitment was positive but did not mark a breakthrough, climate experts said, as it would still allow for the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power stations planned for the next five years,” The Guardian reported.
In one of many recent studies, the London-based think tank TransitionZero said that China must close 588 coal-fired power plants over the next decade and halt new projects immediately to meet Xi’s climate targets.
A recent study by researchers including experts at the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, the North China Electric Power University and Tsinghua University counted 1,037 coal plants currently operating in China with nearly 3,000 individual generating units.
China added 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired generating capacity last year and has approved 73 GW of new projects, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
In a recent study, the Global Energy Monitor said that China has 247 GW of new coal plant capacity under development.
At an April 27 press briefing, a senior environmental official said that the decision to keep building coal power projects was mainly driven by concern for local jobs.
“They mainly help guarantee people’s livelihoods, and guarantee the flexibility and security of our energy grid,” said Li Gao, director-general of the MEE’s climate change department, as reported by The Straits Times.
Shutdowns and cancellations of the projects are likely to meet with local resistance, job losses and unrecoverable costs.
Zou Ji, president of Energy Foundation China, said that the plan to “strictly limit” the increase in coal consumption would make it “very risky” to invest in new coal plants now, the official English-language China Daily reported on April 27.
But it is unclear how Xi will deal with the problem of projects already in progress. The plan to delay the “phase down” of coal use until the 15th Five-Year period suggests that a solution has yet to be found.
Hopes have also been clouded for cooperation on climate change despite pre-summit meetings in Shanghai between U.S. special envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua.
Following Xi’s speech at the summit, political tensions emerged as Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned of links to political differences.
At a forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, Wang said that “cooperation would depend on how the United States responded to Beijing’s policies regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang,” The New York Times reported.
“If the United States no longer interferes in China’s internal affairs, then we can have even smoother cooperation that can bring more benefits to both countries and the rest of the world,” the paper quoted Wang as saying.
But China’s government has also sent mixed signals on when its efforts to curb carbon emissions will begin.
On April 28, the government announced tariff changes for steel imports and exports to take effect May 1, aimed at encouraging mills “to cut crude steel output, guiding the industry to cut energy consumption,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The move to rein in production from a major industrial source of pollution after record crude steel output of over 1 billion metric tons last year may be the first of its kind.
China’s reluctance to advance new targets has stood in contrast to Biden’s announcement that the United States would roughly double its carbon reductions by cutting 50-52 percent of emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. The previous commitment in 2015 by former President Barack Obama called for a cut of 26-28 percent by 2025.
Mikkal Herberg, energy security research director for the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, said the new U.S. plan was designed to put China on the spot.
“There was a very heavy overlay of geopolitics and deteriorating U.S.-China relations in the Biden climate summit outcome,” Herberg said, citing a pre-summit speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that identified climate technology as an area of competition with China.
“It’s difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution. Right now, we’re falling behind,” Blinken said on April 19.
“The Biden administration is quite clearly using the ‘China threat’ to help mobilize domestic support for its climate agenda,” said Herberg.
“But Xi is certainly not going to let a Biden summit get any credit for more ambitious coal and climate policy,” he said.
“So, Xi basically reiterated the posture of the 14th Five- Year Plan, which is to continue reducing coal’s share of energy but without an explicit focus on absolute reductions on coal use until later in the decade,” said Herberg.
It’s more likely that Xi will save an announcement of any upgraded targets for the U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, known as COP 26, in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
“That promotes his posture as a responsible global player in the global process and doesn’t reward the U.S. for any step up in ambitions,” Herberg said.