Beijing backtracks on climate promises as China’s economy slows

When Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his traditional Lunar New Year greetings from the country’s coal heartland in January, the subtext was clear: Beijing is not ready to shake off its dependence on coal, despite promises to reduce emissions.

The ink had barely dried on the hard-fought deal struck at last year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow when Beijing’s backtracking on pledges began.

The country’s central economic planner has watered down a roadmap to cut emissions, given the green light to giant coal-fired power stations and told mines to produce “as much coal as possible” after power shortages crippled entire swathes of the economy last year.

Environmentalists fear this means China would continue to pollute beyond the 2030 deadline by which it promised its emissions would peak.

Xi’s trip to the mining towns of Shanxi – China’s biggest coal-producing province – saw him cook crispy noodle snacks with families “recently lifted out of poverty”.

“We’re not going for carbon neutrality because others are forcing us to, it’s something we have to do. But it can’t be rushed,” he said later during the inspection. of a thermal power station. “We can’t delay the action, but we have to find the right rhythm.”

Days earlier, Xi had told Communist Party officials in Beijing that low-carbon targets should not come at the expense of “normal life” – a major shift in the rhetoric of his 2020 announcement during a a UN assembly that China will be carbon neutral by 2060.

Dependent on coal

The Glasgow Pact encourages countries to reduce their emissions targets, with the aim of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally 1.5 degrees.

Experts have warned that global emissions must be halved within a decade to have any chance of meeting the target.

Workers sort coal near a coal mine in Datong, China in November 2021. When Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his traditional Lunar New Year greetings from the country’s coal heartland in January, the signal was clear – Beijing is not ready to shake off its dependence on coal, despite promises to cut emissions. | AFP-JIJI

A report released Monday by the UN’s climate science advisers said warming beyond 1.5C would cause permanent damage to the planet and nearly half of the world’s population is already ” highly vulnerable” to the accelerated effects of climate change.

“The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home,” said UN chief Antonio Guterres in response to this most compelling scientific overview of the impacts of climate change to date.

China generates about 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, twice the share of the United States and three times that of the European Union.

Environmentalists had hoped that after Glasgow, Beijing might announce a maximum carbon cap for the whole country. But Li Shuo, a Greenpeace China activist, said that was no longer an option.

Policymakers in Beijing have long walked a tightrope balancing climate goals with domestic growth. Beijing has pledged to reduce coal consumption after 2025 – but last year half of China’s economy was powered by it.

Now, as growth slows, authorities are resorting to an old formula of propping up smokestack industries to revive the economy.

Solar panels and wind turbines at Zhangbei in Zhangjiakou, one of the host cities of the 2022 Winter Olympics, in Hebei province, north China.  |  AFP-JIJI
Solar panels and wind turbines at Zhangbei in Zhangjiakou, one of the host cities of the 2022 Winter Olympics, in Hebei province, north China. | AFP-JIJI

In late 2021, China began building 33 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants — the most since 2016 — that will emit as much carbon dioxide per year as Florida, according to data from Global Energy Monitor.

Even more new factories are also being built in the first months of 2022, all of which can operate for 40 years on average.

“Ambition in Peril”

During the Glasgow talks, the Chinese delegation – like many others – promised a detailed roadmap to peak emissions for different industries and regions over the next decade.

Existing guidelines released just before the talks included only vague targets for increasing energy efficiency, and said renewables would supply a quarter of China’s electricity by 2030.

They haven’t been updated yet.

This “suggests that politics is tough, ambition is under threat, and regulators are reserving as much wiggle room (to pollute) as possible for the next few years,” Greenpeace’s Li said.

Early last month, Beijing pushed back the deadline for cutting emissions from the steel sector – China’s biggest carbon emitter – by five years to 2030.

“Steel and cement need to peak earlier than the country as a whole to ensure China’s targets are on track,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst at the Center for Energy Research and clean Air.

Meanwhile, China’s investment in overseas oil and gas projects tripled to $10.9 billion last year, according to a report by Fudan University in January.

Renewable bottlenecks

Another of China’s key commitments – to expand wind and solar capacity to three times the current level over the next decade – has been side-tracked by supply chain disruptions and soaring raw material costs.

The price of polysilicon, used to make solar panels, jumped 174% in December from a year earlier.

Analysts fear more fossil fuels will be burned to meet China’s growing energy needs as renewable energy deployment slows.

“Political signals are much more cautious (than before), indicating that the transition will be slow and that coal will remain a mainstay of China’s energy supply for a long time,” Myllyvirta said.

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