China Watching

2022-09-21 Cecilia Attanasio Ghezzi

Beijing Returns to Coal

The long wave of drought that affected China this summer has caused a collapse of hydroelectric energy production. Coal mines have thus resumed functioning in full, and the importation of Russian coal has reached its peak. The return of coal, however, has already been underway for a few years, imposed by the central government to deal with the economic consequences of the lockdowns. Despite being quite conscious of the fragility of their territory and the potential consequences of climate change, Chinese politicians have nevertheless decided to safeguard the country’s energy independence, notwithstanding the Paris accords.

Last August, we saw the skyline of megalopolises like Shanghai and Chongqing go dark. Factors that assemble machines and electronic devices then distributed in the rest of the world stopped due to a lack of electricity. Long lines formed in front of recharging stations for electric vehicles, while river flow was reduced to the point of preventing navigation by boats of a certain size. Energy rationing affected above all the southwestern regions of the immense territory of China, where up until now, such measures had never been seen; in the region of Sichuan, in particular. This area gets 80 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams in its territory, energy that is also redistributed to the more populous east of the country, and goes to the production centers of the regions of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Hunan, as well as cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing. In fact, Sichuan’s hydroelectric plants provide 18 percent of the energy used in the country,[1] when it rains.

This summer, with the Blue River halved by the drought, the energy produced by the hydroelectric plants was also cut in half. And that’s not all. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs warned that the autumn harvests would be at risk, and the government allocated approximately three billion in aid for growers and farmers. Climate change takes no prisoners, and regards everyone. In fact, apart from the internal situation in China, the consequences of the long wave of drought are already having global repercussions. Part of the hydroelectric energy lost has been offset with energy produced from coal. Chinese mines have resumed functioning in full and the importation of Russian coal has reached its peak. The return of coal had already characterized the first year of the pandemic: between March 1 and 18, 2020, the Chinese authorities had granted permits to generate more coal-based electricity than in the entire year of 2019. Once the coal plants currently under construction are completed, by themselves they will equal the capacity and power of those in use in the United States. This, despite the fact that just one year ago President Xi Jinping in person promised the United Nations that China would reach peak emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060.

Chinese politicians are well aware of the fragility of their territory and the potential consequences of climate change. And although the government’s public plans in this direction have been issued since 2006,[2] when faced with an economic slowdown China chose to return to coal. While from 2010 to 2018 it had reduced coal consumption significantly (from 72 to 58 percent of energy sources) and became the country that invested the most in renewables in the world, in 2020 China had to prioritize the economic consequences of the lockdowns, and with 13 percent of the coal reserves of the entire planet, Beijing has decided to safeguard its energy independence and continue to create development and work in the most backwards regions of the country. But at what price? Chinese public opinion has long fought against pollution, especially atmospheric pollution. If – notwithstanding the Paris accords – carbon returns to favor, will the Chinese be willing to tolerate it? Given that around the world it is the younger generations who worry for the future of the planet, above all so-called Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010. But since in China policies, including on the environment, are chosen at the top and accepted by the population (or the population is made to accept), even the youngest worry more about employment and the fight against poverty than environmental protection. Even businesses, that in China have a great ability to carve out market niches, are aware that environmental conscience, although undoubtedly growing, still has a long way to go.[3]