Despite all climate targets: China continues to rely fully on coal

China likes to present itself as a pioneer in climate protection: The country wants to be CO2-neutral by 2060. Two thirds of all electricity is still generated with coal – and the trend is rising.

By Steffen Wurzel, ARD-Studio Shanghai

China is the country where most of the coal is burned in the world. And China is also the world champion in coal mining. The trend is rising: despite the corona crisis, more coal was mined in China in 2020 than in the previous year. This continues the trend of the past few years. According to figures from the Chinese statistics agency, around 3.8 billion tons of coal were mined in 2020. This number is no longer far removed from the previous high of 2013. China’s increased demand for coal is in sharp contrast to the ambitious climate promises made by the political leadership.

State and party leader Xi Jinping announced in a speech to the United Nations in September that he would improve climate protection in China. By 2030 at the latest, CO2 emissions will decrease and China should be completely CO2-neutral by 2060. But in the past few months, China’s state power companies have commissioned numerous new coal-fired power plants to meet growing energy needs and to revive the corona-weakened economy. Fears of rising unemployment and social displeasure are pushing climate protection into the background in the industrial provinces.

In the Chinese part of Inner Mongolia, for example, new coal-fired power plants with a total output of more than ten gigawatts are to be built. According to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as much coal will be burned there in future as in the whole of Germany – even though only 25 million people live in this part of the country. That is not even a third of Germany’s population.

Climate protection experts call for structural change

Analysts and environmental protection experts are increasingly skeptical of whether China can meet the ambitious climate protection goals of the government. Li Shuo from the environmental protection organization Greenpeace in Beijing primarily blames the provincial governments for this: “While China’s central government has declared war on the emission of harmful greenhouse gases and also wants to push back the CO2-intensive industry, the opposite is true for some provincial authorities: You have declared war on the central government’s climate policy. ” The growing coal mining and the growth of other CO2-intensive industries clearly violate the climate protection obligations of the Chinese leadership, says Li.

But the truth also includes: There is no separation of powers and real federalism in China. The provincial governments are all set up by the communist central government in Beijing, so it is ultimately responsible for climate and economic policy in the individual parts of the country. Climate expert Li is therefore calling for structural change in the provinces of China, which so far have mainly lived from heavy industry such as coal and steel: “The provinces in China that are particularly energy-hungry should change their economies,” he says. This applies to Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, for example.

When it comes to climate protection, however, something completely different is likely to be decisive in China: the issue of saving energy. Most houses, apartments and office buildings in China are still barely insulated. Inefficient electric fans are often used for heating or cooling – and so far there is hardly any social awareness of the issue of saving energy in the world’s most populous country.


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