China has come a long way since this photograph was taken in 2015 with smoke belching from a coal-fired power station near Datong in China's coal capital of Shanxi province. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” is being fuelled by an addiction to coal.

Behind the headlines of high-tech prowess in 5G, AI, or artificial intelligence, and smart factories is a dirty secret linked to fossil fuels. To cope with an insatiable appetite for energy, the sectors of the future are being generated by the power of the past.

Despite assurances from the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter after the Paris Agreement in 2016, China is building even more smog-choking coal-fired plants to counter the rising demand for electricity.

Last month, Beijing’s 10-year energy plan came under scrutiny before the United Nations climate change conference in Madrid. Concerns circulated that Xi’s administration was back-sliding on original pledges to cut CO2 emissions.

Zhao Yingmin, the deputy minister of the environment and in charge of climate negotiations, failed to ease those fears during a media briefing.

“We continue to work hard to advance the fight against climate change, but on the other hand, we are indeed facing multiple challenges such as developing the economy, improving the people’s livelihoods, eliminating poverty and controlling pollution,” he said.

A slowing economy in 2019 has added to the problems facing policymakers. Even a brief upturn in the past two months has failed to hide the economic cracks which have ripped through a raft of sectors, including domestic consumer spending, factory production, investment and trade.

Read: China and US in trillion-dollar tech war

Read: High-tech, high risk for China’s economy

Far-reaching complications in realigning the state-backed economic model to high-tech manufacturing and internet-based services have also created challenges. Consumption, not cheap low-value exports, are pivotal to Beijing’s blueprint as the urban population soars.

Clearly, this will require ramping up electricity capacity. Since the start of 2018, China has built 42.9 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants with another 121.3 GW under construction.

To put that into perspective, that compares with the 35 GW of coal-fired power added in 2017 and 38 GW a year earlier. It also outstripped plant closures in the rest of the world in 2018, data highlighted.

When you break those numbers down, just a gigawatt would power more than 700,000 homes or 110 million LED lights.

“China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris Agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet,” Christine Shearer, the lead author, said in a report for the Global Energy Monitor, a non-governmental organization which tracks worldwide fossil fuel infrastructure.

“The divergence between China and the rest of the world looks set to continue: China currently has 121.3 GW of coal plants under active construction, more than the amount under construction in the rest of the world combined (105.2 GW),” she added in a study released in November and entitled, Out of Step, China is Driving the Continued Growth of the Global Coal Fleet.

Old king coal accounted for 58% of the nation’s total energy consumption in 2018 with natural gas coming in at 17%. Oil simply blurred the picture even further, a report by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in the United Kingdom showed.

Fast forward to 2050 and what was known as “black gold” during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century will still make up 33% of the mix. Those projections were released by the China National Petroleum Corporation, or CNPC, the country’s largest oil and gas major.

Read: Trade war chips away at China’s wheel of fortune

Read: US-China trade deal looks distinctly anorexic

As the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies reported in Glimpses of China’s Energy Future:

“According to the CNPC forecast, even though coal’s share will continue to fall, it will still account for a third of primary energy use in 2050. Indeed, while in many developed countries decarbonization is synonymous with electrification, in China it is the crux of the challenge given the predominance of coal in power generation … Powering the rising urban population will, therefore, be China’s main priority and coal will remain a viable option.

“[It] is by no means unanimously viewed as the climate villain in China. Not only is it an important source of government tax revenue, but the coal industry is also a powerful stakeholder that contributes to employment and secure energy supplies [compared to imported oil and gas]. There are certainly advocates of more assertive efforts to phase out coal within China. How they fare in the national debate about the country’s energy priorities over the next 12 [to]18 months will be critical to China’s energy pathways.”

Raking through the ashes of previous discussions have proved pointless in the past. Each year, China burns about half the coal consumed worldwide. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions practically tripled to about 30% of the global total.

Yet that is only half the story, the part layered in soot. Because of the sheer scale of China’s energy industry, renewables such as wind and solar have sprouted up in a forest of fossil fuels.

“We are witnessing many contradictions in China’s energy development,” Kevin Tu, of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and based in Beijing, told the Associated Press news agency. “It’s the largest coal market and the largest clean energy market in the world.”

Solving that conundrum and kicking a dirty habit will be a priority for China in the decades ahead.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *