Two somewhat contradictory recent reports are pointing to alarming increases in China’s fossil fuel use and resulting greenhouse gas emissions, with the most recent warning the country’s renewed embrace of coal could be enough to undo progress around the world and defeat the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
While other countries cut their overall coal capacity by eight gigawatts in the 18 months that ended June 30, China increased its capacity by 42.9 GW, Global Energy Monitor reports . Separately, a research team led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has  the country’s carbon dioxide emissions from coal falling by 75.6 million tonnes in 2020, but its oil and gas emissions growing by 200 Mt.
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Citing the NRDC report, Reuters says China “lowered the share of coal in its energy mix to 59% last year, from 68% in 2012, and the researchers said it was expected to fall to 55.3% by 2020.” But Global Energy Monitor analyst Christine Shearer told The Guardian the country’s coal expansion plans are “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.”
“Global Energy Monitor said the gulf between China and other countries was on track to widen as Beijing pursued plans to build more new plants than the rest of the world combined,” with 147 GW either under construction or about to be revived after a previous decision to suspend them, The Guardian notes. “China is also helping to finance a quarter of all the new coal projects in the rest of the world, including in South Africa, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. China’s coal investments, including domestic projects, mean it is backing more than half of all global coal power capacity under development.”
Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investment at Norwegian pension fund KLP, which has dropped shares in Chinese coal companies worth about US$6.5 million, said clean alternatives should be able to break the country’s apparent addiction to coal.
“China has a strong advantage that it is a global leader in solar and wind power, and last year it sold more electric cars than the rest of the world combined,” she said. “China can become the world’s foremost clean energy superpower,” but only if it aligns “with what is almost a worldwide consensus: all coal plants are toxic investments, and ‘clean’ coal is a myth.”
The NRDC study urged China to reduce its coal use by 400 million tonnes, or 8%, between 2021 and 2025. “We are facing a question—either to cut coal consumption faster in order to offset the emission growth from oil and gas, or to control carbon emissions coming from oil and gas use as well,” said Senior Advisor Yang Fuqiang.
“Although China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, it is still designated as a developing country and has not yet been obliged to cut its absolute CO2 levels,” Reuters notes. “However, it had promised to cut carbon intensity—the amount produced per unit of economic growth—by 40 to 45% over the 2005-2020 period, and met the target two years in advance.”
Earlier this month, the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute reported on its work with the city of Ningbo, China, to develop a 333-square-kilometre near-zero emission zone. “To support cities to peak carbon emissions, the central government of China established a national program that calls for 50 near-zero carbon zones by 2050,” RMI explains . The Ningbo plan enables the city “to maintain carbon emissions just below the 2017 level, while achieving four times the growth in gross domestic product by 2030.”