Xi Attends White House Climate Summit Where Coal Is On The Menu

Chinese President Xi Jinping virtually attended a White House climate summit, fueling hopes that Joe Biden’s policy of “extreme competition” will propel both countries to combat the climate crisis. Before the summit, Biden climate envoy John Kerry travelled to China. “We talked a lot about coal,” Kerry told the press. At The New York Times, Somini Sengupta wrote about how coal is central to U.S.-China climate diplomacy:

Coal is the lightning rod of climate diplomacy this year, as countries scramble to rebuild their economies after the coronavirus pandemic while at the same time, stave off the risks of a warming planet. The Biden administration has leaned on its allies Japan and Korea to stop financing coal use abroad. And it has repeatedly called out China for its soaring coal use. China is by far the largest consumer of coal, and is still building coal-fired power plants at home and abroad.

[…] China’s president Xi Jinping took a swipe at that criticism on Monday by pointing to the historical responsibility of Western industrialized nations to do more to slow down warming. The United States accounts for the largest share of emissions in history; China accounts for the largest share of emissions today.

China’s economy rebounded in 2020. Government stimulus measures encouraged the production of steel, cement and other industrial products that eat up energy. Coal demand rose. The capacity of China’s fleet of coal-fired power plants grew by a whopping 38 gigawatts in 2020, making up the vast majority of new coal projects worldwide and offsetting nearly the same amount of coal capacity that was retired worldwide. (One gigawatt is enough to power a medium-sized city.) [Source]

Together the United States and China are the world’s biggest polluters—with U.S. per capita emissions more than double those of China but total Chinese emissions nearly double those of America. In September 2020, Xi Jinping pledged that Chinese emissions would peak by 2030 and the country would be carbon neutral by 2060. Despite Xi’s pledge, China commissioned 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-power plants in 2020 even as the rest of the world idled 37.8 gigawatts of coal plants, meaning global coal capacity actually increased. During the summit, Xi pledged for the first time to “strictly limit increasing coal consumption” over the next five years and slash it over the following five. At The Wall Street Journal, Sha Hua and Phred Dvorak wrote about what Xi’s new pledge means for future Chinese coal consumption:

This leaves room for China to further increase coal consumption in the next four years. China proposed 73.5 gigawatts of new coal-fired power last year, more than five times as much as the rest of the world combined. In 2020, coal supplied nearly 57% of China’s energy, according to China’s statistics bureau.

But the picture may not be as bad as it seems on the surface. A number of the coal-fired power plants that China has approved may never get built because they aren’t economically viable or likely desired by Beijing, said Zhang Xiliang, the director of the Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy at Tsinghua University.

[…] Mr. Xi argued in his speech Thursday that China’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral from peak emissions was over a much shorter timespan than that of many developed countries and that it required extraordinary efforts from China. [Source]

In March, Chris Buckley reported for The New York Times on China’s coal conundrum: it is vital to the livelihood of millions, making reform painful, even inconceivable:

Chinese officials in such areas also worry about losses of jobs and investment and the resulting social strains. They argue that China still needs coal to provide a robust base of power to complement solar, wind and hydropower sources, which are more prone to fluctuating. And many energy companies backing these views are state-owned behemoths that have easy access to political leaders.

“Local governments see coal power as a robust energy shield,” Lu Zhonglou, a Chinese businessman who sold his coal mines a few years ago and still keeps an eye on the industry, said in a telephone interview. “You can’t write off coal too early.”

[…] “I’ve never thought about the coal mine shutting down, never thought about leaving,” Gui Lianjun, a 39-year old miner in Shenmu, a coal city in northwest China, said by telephone. He sounded nonplused when asked about the link between coal and global warming.

“The government close down a mine because of global warming? I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. “I’ve never heard of that reason.” [Source]

At Macro Polo, Ilaria Mazzocco wrote that China’s decentralized economy will lead to uneven progress towards climate goals, possibly frustrating efforts to meet reduction targets:

Of course, much like the United States, a decentralized continental-size economy does not march to the same beat, even if the man beating the drum is Xi Jinping. That’s why some flexibility is already baked in. The state firms and provinces have the option to peak carbon before 2030 and tailor their approaches based on their local circumstances. For example, the steel industry has pledged to peak emissions before 2025, a goal that may be facilitated by a future trend of reduced demand.

[…] Some provinces will be much more aligned with central mandates and timeline on decarbonization, while others will be laggards. For example, wealthier regional economies with larger services sectors and less carbon-intensive industries will have first-mover advantage when it comes to implementing peak emissions policies. This dynamic may well lead to a significant “decarbonization gap” between regions in terms of both the decarbonization targets they set for themselves and their performance. [Source]

The Biden Administration has high hopes for U.S.-China climate cooperation, and some bright spots in the recent past may serve as hopeful precedents. But human rights issues might puncture rosy narratives about global cooperation on climate change. The alleged use of forced labor in Xinjiang’s polysilicon industry, which is key to solar panel manufacturing, will force countries to make difficult choices. As put to The New York Times by Francine Sullivan, an executive at a Norwegian polysilicon maker: “Do you want to stand up to human rights in China, or do you want cheap solar panels?”

While a guest on The Economist’s Babbage podcast, Yifei Li, author of “China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet,” took issue with John Kerry’s assertion that climate change is a “standalone issue,” unrelated to America’s conflicts with China on human rights, trade, and technology:

“Climate change by definition is not a standalone issue. Energy technologies are at once climate change and intellectual property rights issues; conservation is at once climate change and ethnic minority rights issues; hydropower is at once climate change and geopolitical issues; and atmospheric engineering is at once climate change and territorial issues; so there is no freestanding climate change to speak of.” [Source]

Domestic political considerations might also hamper cooperation. Greenpeace East Asia senior adviser Li Shuo told The Washington Post that “precisely because it’s a U.S.-organized event […] China might have been more hesitant to put more offers on the table.” A report by the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies drew a similar conclusion, this time laying the blame at the United States’ feet: “The United States government regards China as its biggest strategic competitive rival… [tensions] exacerbated the difficulties of collective action in global climate governance.”

At Foreign Affairs, Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel Collins wrote that only a carbon tax can surmount the political obstacles described above and force China to wean itself from coal, arguing that the world needs competition not cooperation:

It will be incredibly hard to wean China of its over dependence on coal. Leaders at both the national and the local level are bound to the cheap fuel, which spurs the economic growth that ensures their political survival. Local officials hungrily tap into coal to boost growth figures just long enough to win promotion to higher assignments elsewhere. They think in the short term and typically prefer to invest in projects under their jurisdiction, rather than crafting more climate-friendly systems that cross provincial lines and optimize the use of energy but require political negotiations and the possible surrender of control. Consequently, China is littered with irrational energy-intensive investments, including unnecessary coal plants.

[…] An assembled coalition should seek to use carbon taxation—a levy on goods or services corresponding to their carbon footprint, or the emissions required to make them—to change Chinese behavior. Led by the United States, the key industrial democracies that collectively account for the world’s largest market bloc should institute domestic carbon taxes, preferably benchmarked to a negotiated standard and with provisions that would allow the rate to be increased on an annual or biannual basis, if necessary. These countries should then institute carbon border adjustment mechanisms: a tax on imported goods based on their assessed carbon footprints if they come from a place with no or lower carbon pricing.

[…] To force meaningful change, the United States must build a climate coalition to put pressure on China and its exporters. Such action could bolster reformers in China by allowing them to advocate deeper and faster decarbonization on the grounds that it would increase China’s national competitiveness. The pressure created by a carbon taxation regime among industrialized democracies would help empower China’s domestic energy- transition advocates against opponents who seek to keep the country’s energy sources rooted in near-term local imperatives that foster continued dependence on coal. [Source]


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