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TematicheCina e Indo-PacificoIs China’s increasing reliance on coal undermining global climate...

Is China’s increasing reliance on coal undermining global climate efforts? 

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China is the largest carbon emitter in the world and its growing reliance on coal is affecting the global efforts to tackle climate change. Coal mining and imports have continued to increase in recent years, as Beijing relies on boosting coal-fired energy output to address the power crisis, especially, in the wake of heatwaves and droughts

According to some estimates, China imported 220 million tonnes of coal in the first half of 2023, which is 93 percent higher year-on-year. As a matter of example, European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite detected a plume of methane, a greenhouse gas, over a coal mine in north China, a phenomenon that gives an insight into the gravity of the problems. The renewed mining by China would increase methane levels, which are more potent than carbon dioxide, according to a study by Global Energy Monitor (GEM). “China’s frenzy of new mine development is creating hundreds of new sources of methane emissions,” said Ryan Driskell Tate, a climate analyst at the GEM.

China’s emissions are 30 percent of the total global emissions and more than that of the US, the EU and India combined. At the same time, China continues to contribute to global warming by consuming increasing amounts of coal to power its cities and operate energy-intensive industries, with carbon emissions that have increased by 10 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2023. “China’s coal boom is actually undermining significant progress away from coal in all other parts of the world,” said Leo Roberts of climate think tank E3G.

The rising temperature is a big reason why China is trying to generate more amount of energy required for air-conditioning Notably, the droughts have lowered the energy output from hydropower plants in China. Official data shows that hydropower generation has fallen by a third due to the droughts, something that has led authorities to turn to coal to ensure a smooth supply of energy. According to Greenpeace East Asia, local governments want to ensure energy supply and to stabilise the economy, and consider coal power as the safest solution for energy security. China has begun building new thermal power plants, thus focusing more on energy security, while ignoring the calls for fossil fuel cuts to stop climate catastrophe. Beijing built one thermal power plant every week in 2023, while the frequency was twice in 2022. By the same token, China is building six times more new coal plants than all countries combined, being the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development. 

Earlier in 2020 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the country would reach an emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. However, Xi changed his tone soon, stating as early as 2022 that carbon peak and carbon neutrality cannot be realized overnight. While China has claimed to ramp up solar and wind power generation capacity, it has failed to build the required infrastructure for storage and distribution. The outlook clearly indicates that the Chinese government has put energy security and energy transition at odds with one another, although according to some experts China has built more thermal power plants than it needs, thus it doesn’t make sense to give more incentives for more coal-fired power investments. The rapid construction of thermal power plants is a “knee-jerk response” to meet the rising demand for energy amid heatwaves, or an excuse for new projects, according to some other views. 
At present, 56 percent of China’s energy supplies come from coal-fired plants. The Beijing government permitted 52 gigawatts of new coal capacity in the first half of 2023, which makes a total 243 gigawatts of thermal plants being under construction. The Chinese action of ignoring clean energy will derail the global climate mission and could mean a major increase in China’s CO2 emissions over this decade, undermining the global climate effort, and could even put China’s climate commitments in danger.

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