China’s plan to build more coal-fired plants deals blow to UK’s Cop26 ambitions

Renewed commitment to coal could scupper Britain’s aim to secure global phase-out pact at climate summit

China plans to build more coal-fired power plants and has hinted that it will rethink its timetable to slash emissions, in a significant blow to the UK’s ambitions for securing a global agreement on phasing out coal at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

In a statement after a meeting of Beijing’s National Energy Commission, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, stressed the importance of regular energy supply, after swathes of the country were plunged into darkness by rolling blackouts that hit factories and homes.

While China has published plans to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, the statement hinted that the energy crisis had led the Communist party to rethink the timing of this ambition, with a new “phased timetable and roadmap for peaking carbon emissions”.

China has previously set out plans to be carbon neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking by 2030, a goal analysts say would involve shutting 600 coal-fired power plants. President Xi Jinping has also pledged to stop building coal plants abroad.

“Energy security should be the premise on which a modern energy system is built and and the capacity for energy self-supply should be enhanced,” the statement said.

“Given the predominant place of coal in the country’s energy and resource endowment, it is important to optimise the layout for the coal production capacity, build advanced coal-fired power plants as appropriate in line with development needs, and continue to phase out outdated coal plants in an orderly fashion. Domestic oil and gas exploration will be intensified.”

Beijing’s ambitions for carbon dioxide output are seen as critical in the push to achieve global net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and fulfil the 2015 Paris agreement to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C. But Li said Beijing wanted to gather new evidence on when its peak emissions would be reached.

The statement said he had commissioned “in-depth studies and calculations in light of the recent handling of electricity and coal supply strains, to put forward a phased timetable and roadmap for peaking carbon emissions”.

Li’s rhetoric follows reports that China has ordered its two top coal-producing regions, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, to combat the country’s power supply crisis.

Beijing’s renewed embrace of coal – apparently at odds with Xi’s state climate ambitions – are likely to cause alarm in the run-up to Cop26.

Alok Sharma, the UK’s president-designate of Cop26, has said an agreement to phase out coal power is a key aim of the summit.

George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and the author of Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is in Jeopardy, said Beijing had been forced to revise its plans in the face of the reality of economic problems and power outages.

Sign up to the daily Business Today email or follow Guardian Business on Twitter at @BusinessDesk

“China has stumbled into an energy crisis in much the same way the rest of us have done but it is exacerbated by the fact that the grid and the electricity companies are subject to price controls and cannot pass the prices on,” he said. “Many have decided to shut down production and they have had a lot of power outages for households and companies. This has come at a very bad moment in China, on top of [collapsed property giant] Evergrande and the property bust.

“They have basically cycled back on their coal policy. With Cop26 coming up, there is a lot of talk about how committed the Chinese are to net zero goals by 2050 but this is another setback. It has happened before, when the economy was weaker during the pandemic, that they relaxed restrictions on coal capacity. Now they are doing it again.

“If the new relaxations last a few weeks, it might not matter so much. If it lasts into 2022 as China strives to avoid bad economic outcomes ahead of its key CCP 20th party congress in November 2022, climate policy optimists might have to rethink for sure.”

Concern about China’s coal ambitions come on the eve of the publication of the International Energy Agency’s annual world energy outlook, which says much greater action is required globally if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.

The IEA said its hopes of speeding up the clean energy transition to meet the target involved a “rapid” reduction in the amount of coal burned to produce electricity.


Rob Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Will China’s plan to build more coal plants derail Cop26?
Analysis: while the short-term consequences are grim, veteran analysts talk of a wobble rather than a fall

Jonathan Watts

13, Oct, 2021 @5:16 PM

Article image
China’s coal plans could derail Cop26 climate ambitions, says Labour
Ed Miliband joins climate experts in expressing ‘deep concern’ over Beijing’s plans to step up coal output

Rob Davies

13, Oct, 2021 @3:15 PM

Article image
Global alliance for phasing out coal not fit for purpose, says NGO
Powering Past Coal Alliance accused of failing to follow up on pledges as many countries expand use of coal

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

27, Apr, 2021 @8:53 AM

Article image
The road to net zero: Aberdeen looks to a future without oil
Can the Granite city diversify into non-fossil fuel industries in time to avoid the fate of UK coal-mining areas?

Larry Elliott Economics editor

01, Nov, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
China ‘must shut 600 coal-fired plants’ to hit climate target
Move towards renewables to hit net zero by 2060 would also pay off with saving of $1.6tn, analysis finds

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

14, Apr, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Five Asian countries account for 80% of new coal power investment
China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam plan to build more than 600 coal power units

Jillian Ambrose

29, Jun, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Almost half of thermal coal firms set to defy climate pledge – report
Report identifies 935 firms finance industry needs to blacklist to meet Paris goals

Jillian Ambrose Energy correspondent

12, Nov, 2020 @8:01 AM

Article image
Coal in 'freefall' as new power plants dive by two-thirds
Green groups’ report says move to cleaner energy in China and India is discouraging the building of coal-fired units

Adam Vaughan

22, Mar, 2017 @8:25 AM

Article image
How German coalition wrangling could affect Cop26 mood
Analysis: after Germany’s climate election, UN summit delegates will be watching to see what is agreed on coal phase-out

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

28, Sep, 2021 @7:45 AM

Article image
Satellite images show 'runaway' expansion of coal power in China
Extra 259GW capacity from coal in pipeline despite Beijing’s restrictions on plants

Adam Vaughan

26, Sep, 2018 @5:00 AM