China’s climate pledge and the 2020 irony

Last year China produced a record 3.84 billion tonnes of coal since 2015

By Pratha Jhawar
Published: Wednesday 20 January 2021
Last year China produced a record 3.84 billion tonnes of coal

The year 2020 marked a watershed year for the entire world because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Experts called for building back better and resorting to green economic recovery.

In September 2020, at the Climate Ambition Summit convened by the United Nations, China vowed to be carbon-neutral by 2060, which can be seen as the major commitment from China to fight global warming.

Ironically, in 2020 China produced 3.84 billion tonnes of coal — the highest since 2015, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. With this, China, the biggest polluter of the world, which is responsible for 28 per cent of the global emissions, continues its march for coal production.

China is the world’s largest coal producer and importer as well as consumer of more than half of global coal. The trend continued in 2020.

According to an online resource base Energy Policy Tracker, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, China committed at least $4.57 billion for supporting fossil fuel energy whereas there is no quantification on the unconditional support to clean energy.

To give impetus to its economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 impact, the Chinese government has relaxed some environmental norms and extended requirements and compliance deadlines for firms to increase production.

Moreover, China has avoided setting up energy efficiency (energy consumption per unit of GDP) target for the year 2020. 

Before announcing the net-zero commitments, China had systematically exploited avenues of growth and emissions. The country has been approving plans for new coal power plant capacity at the fastest rate since 2015.

Survey data from Global Energy Monitor and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that China approved the construction of more coal power plants in the first half of 2020 than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined.

Fatih Birol, executive director of International Energy Agency, taking stock of the Chinese activities, declared in November 2020, "Chinese emissions this year will be higher than in 2019. They have rebounded," on a digital energy conference organised by Norwegian oil firm Equinor.

Birol acknowledges the Chinese pledge. But based on the current state of environment he writes, “Long-term targets alone will not put emissions into decline rapidly enough to reach net-zero by mid-century. Nothing short of a total transformation of our energy infrastructure is required — a worldwide undertaking of unprecedented speed and scale”.

Development Research Center, a cabinet think tank, suggests China to double wind and solar capacity to around 1,000 gigawatts by 2025, as against the government intention of installing 1,200 GW by 2030 to ensure the 2060 targets. This will entail not only the investments in this direction but also facilitation for a social transition.

China is set to put forth its fourteenth five year plan for 2021-25. This should mark a major shift in the government policies regarding energy security which has so far been built on the fossil fuel output.

The plan should include a clear roadmap for the termination of new coal projects and decarbonising the energy sector. It should also include provisions to stop supporting overseas coal plants financially.

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