China’s Return To Coal-fired Power Generation Threatens Environmental Promises

As Beijing and several other northern Chinese cities find themselves once more engulfed in heavy smog, it raises concerns about the country’s commitment to environmental goals. Severe pollution warnings have been issued for the capital, as well as the northern port of Tianjin and other regional cities. The root cause of this return to smog? A renewed reliance on coal-fired power generation to stimulate the economy, a move that seems contradictory to China’s earlier environmental commitments.

For residents of these cities, the outlook is grim. They have been warned to brace themselves for at least two consecutive days of severe pollution or three consecutive days of moderate pollution. Approximately 100 million people in the region are feeling the consequences of this reversal in environmental progress.

This sudden resurgence of smog is a stark contrast to Beijing’s earlier initiatives to combat pollution. The city had previously closed dozens of coal-fired power plants and relocated a significant portion of its heavy industry to ensure cleaner skies, a crucial aspect of its successful bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. However, the recent shift towards coal-fired power generation indicates a change in priorities.

Reports suggest that the increase in smog is primarily due to the rising power consumption in industries such as cement, brick, and tile manufacturing, as well as heavy truck exhaust emissions. On November 1st, the concentration of PM2.5 fine particulate matter, which poses the greatest threat to human health, measured more than 20 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization. This made Beijing the third most polluted city in the world that week, highlighting the severity of the situation.

Qin Qi, an analyst at Finland’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, raises concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to boost economic growth while ensuring energy security. This drive has led to an expansion in coal-fired power generation, despite China’s stated goals for reducing carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. The power generation sector is pivotal in determining whether these ambitious targets can be met, as it accounts for roughly half of the country’s total carbon emissions.

Flora Champenois, an analyst at the U.S. non-profit organization Global Energy Monitor, points out that China is still constructing new coal-fired power plants, a move that will undoubtedly lead to a spike in carbon emissions. This expansion will also increase the country’s dependence on coal, which runs counter to the goal of reducing such reliance as part of its carbon neutrality commitment.

Dorothy Mei, who leads the Global Coal Mine Tracker research project at Global Energy Monitor, concurs, emphasizing that China’s carbon neutrality goal hinges on reducing coal dependency. Despite this, China has approved a series of new coal mines in its northwestern regions, including Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, and Shanxi provinces, even though these areas are also targeted for clean energy development.

Qin Qi raises concerns about the lack of clarity regarding how China intends to fulfill its clean energy commitments. While China is currently focusing on controlling energy consumption, the government has also acknowledged the necessity of moving toward carbon emission controls. However, the details of these plans and the expansion of the carbon market remain uncertain.

China’s promises to the United Nations are also called into question. President Xi Jinping pledged before the UN General Assembly in September 2020 that China would ensure carbon emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In 2021, he reiterated this commitment by vowing to strictly limit coal-fired power projects and coal consumption growth over the following five years, while also promising not to sign any more coal-fired power export contracts.

The recent return to coal-fired power generation not only contradicts these promises but also threatens to undermine China’s reputation as a global leader in environmental responsibility. The severe pollution currently engulfing Beijing and other northern cities is a stark reminder that economic concerns should not take precedence over environmental sustainability.

But an unprecedented heatwave in 2021 and 2022 created a massive spike in power demand as people across the country relied on air conditioners to stay cool and safe, overloading the national grid and prompting blackouts and rationing around the country.

In response, the government started approving more coal mines and coal-fired power, citing the need to maintain energy security.

By Aug. 11, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper was reporting that open-pit coal mining output had exceeded 1 billion tons for the first time during 2022.

In conclusion, China’s renewed reliance on coal-fired power generation has raised concerns about its commitment to environmental goals, including carbon neutrality by 2060. The resurgence of smog in Beijing and other northern cities is a troubling development, highlighting the need for a reevaluation of China’s environmental priorities. Balancing economic growth with environmental responsibility is a global challenge, and China’s decisions in this regard will have far-reaching consequences for the future of our planet.

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