China has ‘no other choice’ but to rely on coal power for now

on Apr29
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A coal fired power plant in Jiayuguan, Gansu province, China, on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BEIJING — China has ambitious goals for cutting its carbon emissions, but it won’t be abandoning coal power anytime soon as it keeps its eye firmly on economic targets.

President Xi Jinping said in September that the country’s carbon emissions would begin to decline by 2030, and he said the country will reach carbon neutrality by 2060 — in four decades.

In the meantime, policymakers are making clear that economic growth remains a top priority — and that growth depends largely on coal power. Beijing has a GDP target of 6% this year, a level which analysts say would allow authorities to tackle long-term problems such as the country’s high debt levels.

Many developing countries don’t even have electricity. In this situation, if you don’t use coal, what will you use?

Li Gao

China ecology ministry, on Chinese funding of coal power outside China

“China’s energy structure is dominated by coal power. This is an objective reality,” said Su Wei, deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission. CNBC translated his Mandarin-language comments, which he made late last week following Xi’s separate remarks at a U.S.-led global leaders climate summit.

“Because renewable energy (sources such as) wind and solar power are intermittent and unstable, we must rely on a stable power source,” Su said. “We have no other choice. For a period of time, we may need to use coal power as a point of flexible adjustment.”

He added that coal is readily available, while renewable energy needs to develop further in China.

Funding coal power outside China

“Many developing countries don’t even have electricity,” he said. “In this situation, if you don’t use coal, what will you use?”

According to the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China together funded $474 million worth of coal-sector projects outside China in 2020 alone.

The same report indicated that China’s financing of energy projects beyond its borders has declined steadily since 2016, however.

Li said that coal accounted for 56.8% of China’s domestic energy generation in 2020, down from 72.4% 15 years ago. As of last year, China was the world’s heaviest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit founded at MIT. The United States was second, and India was third.

During last week’s climate summit, Xi called for international cooperation in reducing carbon emissions, adding that different countries should play different roles in that reduction. He did not identify any countries by name.

Xi said China would “strictly control coal-fired generation projects” and limit increases in coal consumption over the next five years. He said reductions would take place in the five years following that.

System ‘favors coal-fired generation’

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