November 30, 2022

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China burns more coal, a growing climate challenge

China burns more coal, a growing climate challenge

China is preparing to take advantage of the global urgency to tackle climate change. It is the world’s dominant manufacturer and user of solar panels and wind turbines. It leads the world in producing energy from hydroelectric dams and builds more nuclear power plants than any other country.

But China also burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, and it has sped up mining and construction of coal-fired power plants, which increased the country’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 6 percent last year, the fastest pace in a decade. . China’s addiction to coal is likely to continue for years, even decades.

As the world’s climate negotiator They meet this weekend in Egypt for their 27th annual meeting of the Conference of the PartiesChina needs to balance reducing greenhouse gas emissions with its concerns about securing its energy. The country has long viewed coal, which it has in abundance, as the best way to avoid over-reliance on foreign energy suppliers and remain vulnerable to unpredictable weather, such as droughts that reduce production of hydroelectric dams.

No country has a higher climate risk than in China. Primarily due to the use of coal, China emits nearly a third of man-made greenhouse gases – more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined.

“There is no solution to climate change without limiting coal burning in China,” said David Sandalo, a senior energy official in the Obama and Clinton administrations.

The big question is whether China will run its new coal-fired plants around the clock or only occasionally, as a renewable energy precaution. A country’s coal consumption alone produces more carbon emissions per year than the total energy-related emissions of the United States in a year.

China’s push to build more coal-fired power plants, at a cost of up to $1 billion each, has alarmed Western officials. John Kerry, Biden Administration’s Climate Envoy, warned last year That “adding upwards of 200 gigawatts of coal over the past five years, and now another 200 gigawatts or so being thrown online in the planning phase, if it pays off, will in fact cancel out the rest of the world’s ability to achieve the 1.5°C limit.” in rising global temperatures.

Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, said in an October report to the National Congress of the Communist Party that the country would move faster to develop renewable and nuclear energy. But he also emphasized energy security — strongly suggesting continued dependence on coal, of which China has more reserves than any other country.

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“Coal will be used in a cleaner and more efficient way,” Mr. Shi said, without mentioning to reduce consumption.

A look at two regions in China – the greater Beijing region and the coal-mining heartland in central Shanxi Province – confirms the hopes and fears of climate scientists.

Beijing’s administrative district covers an area the size of Connecticut, from vast wheat fields On the plains to the southeast to the mountain ranges covered with brush and topped by the Great Wall of China in the north.

China’s ability to rely heavily on renewable energy is evident in and around the village of Hanhaozhuang, which borders Beijing with Hebei Province to the north. It’s a small village where stone-walled sheep pens alternate with yellow and gray gourds growing on steel wire arbours.

Behind the pens is a vast expanse of dark blue solar panels mounted on steel frames to keep them tilted at a right south angle toward the sun. The solar farm covers five times the area of ​​the village. Two rows of apple trees grow between each row of solar panels, providing a cash crop for the residents.

Dozens of miles to the southwest, in a swamp along the banks of a reservoir, stands a long row of wind turbines. They turn the strong winds blowing from the Gobi desert into electricity for Beijing. And near the city, utilities have built large gas-fired power plants.

These measures have reduced Beijing’s coal use by 95 percent in the decade to 2020, the latest year for which data is available. The last coal mine in the area closed three years ago.

But if the weather turns too hot or too cold, driving up demand for electricity, or if renewable energy slows, Beijing hasn’t given up on coal. Located in the southeast of the city, the huge Huaneng thermal plant is poised to launch four coal-fired units, each taller than a 10-storey residential tower.

Other regions are far from giving up coal. In Shanxi Province, 300 miles southwest of Beijing and in the heart of China’s coal country, coal companies in the past year have sharply upped the pace of digging new or expanding mines in the low, dry hills. Shanxi also burns massive amounts of coal to power cement plants, steel mills and other industries and to generate electricity — coal consumption grew 80 percent in the decade to 2020. Wind and solar power are growing there, too, but those production levels were much lower to begin with.

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Natural gas, which when burned releases nearly half as much carbon dioxide as coal, provides a potential bridge from coal to renewable energy in China. How much China promotes natural gas instead of coal will have long-term consequences not only for its economy but also for its relationship with Russia.

Gas imports from Russia are rapidly increasing from pipelines and LNG shipments despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This year, China almost doubled its gas imports via a pipeline from East Siberia. But, overall, Russian gas makes up only 1% of China’s energy consumption and less than a tenth of China’s gas consumption. It is unclear how much China is willing to buy from its northern neighbor and is subject to intense speculation among Western officials and energy analysts.

The biggest outstanding issue is whether to build a second, larger pipeline, known as Power of Siberia 2, across Mongolia to China. Gas fields in Western Siberia were supplying Europe. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has severely reduced these flows to punish European leaders for opposing his invasion of Ukraine.

Russia was eager to build Power of Siberia 2, which could supply China with a tenth of its gas needs. But China appears to be slowing down, considering whether to deepen energy ties with Moscow. China has constantly sought diversification in supply and long-term, low-cost contracts.

“China has not committed to anything yet,” said Anna Mikulska, a natural gas and Russia expert at Rice University. “They are looking for a deal.”

China is now focusing on coal. The Beijing region’s strategy of retaining a giant coal-fired power plant to meet short peak demand periods challenges conventional wisdom in the global energy industry.

Natural gas has long been seen as a better option to counter such peaks, because gas-powered turbines can increase electricity production in minutes or even seconds. Coal-fired plants can take up to two days of cold start.

Zhou Shizu, a longtime Chinese energy specialist now at S&P Global, said China is now investing heavily in refurbishing coal-fired power plants to make them more suitable for meeting peak electricity needs. Keeping coal-fired power plants running slowly — at 30 to 50 percent of their capacity, as China does in some cities — allows plants to be brought to full capacity very quickly when there is a shortage of renewable energy.

The danger to the climate is that electric utilities may not be satisfied with operating coal-fired power plants only part-time, said Mr. Sandalo, a former US energy official. “Once the asset is built, will there be pressure to use it more?” He said.

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Beijing has begun to allow electric utilities to charge significantly more money per kilowatt-hour for coal-fired electricity during power shortages. The cost of electricity soared in August when drought in southwest China caused a drop in hydropower and a wave of blackouts.

“This is leading many companies to the point of considering rooftop solar panels in their plants,” said Frank Hugwitz, a longtime Chinese solar energy consultant. China now installs more solar panels each year than the rest of the world combined, with the electricity generation capacity of new facilities doubled again this year.

The country’s National Energy Administration has made it clear that a slowly increasing proportion of new solar installations must contain batteries, although this makes the systems more expensive.

The goal is for the solar panels to meet energy needs during the day and store enough electricity in the batteries to meet local needs for another two to four hours after sunset. The batteries also provide additional time for coal-fired power plants to increase electricity production.

The specificity of China’s past climate pledges gives the country’s coal industry an extraordinary incentive to burn as much coal as possible in the next seven years. Mr. Shi has promised China’s net carbon emissions will peak “before 2030” and then shrink to zero by 2060.

But he did not specify how high these emissions would be. So burning additional coal in the coming years could theoretically help the coal industry keep more mines and power plants running for many more years at higher output, protecting profits and jobs.

Experts in China dismiss concerns that their country will. Kevin Tu, a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy in Beijing, said the Chinese national government is firmly committed to reducing smog and toxic air pollution, in addition to climate goals.

Mr. Tu said Beijing authorities will need to keep a close eye on local officials to ensure they are following national policies. “At the local government level, there are different interest groups trying to raise emissions at the county level,” he said. “This would generate higher economic growth in the short term, unfortunately at the expense of the environment in the long term.”

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