China needs to cut coal at home too for world to reach Paris climate goal

China made a big splash at the United Nations General Assembly, with President Xi Jinping announcing the country would stop building new coal plants abroad, which, if fulfilled, would cut off all international public support for the dirtiest fossil fuel.

But China's decision to focus on overseas coal suggests Beijing is not ready to grapple with curbing its appetite at home.

"The new commitment indicates that China acknowledges the need to move away from coal. All eyes are now on China's domestic efforts," said Claire Healy, the head of the Washington, D.C., office of E3G, a European think tank.

QUESTIONS SURROUND CHINA'S COMMITMENT TO SCRAP BUILDING COAL PLANTS OVERSEAS

Indeed, it is much more important for China (the world's biggest consumer and producer of coal and thus largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions) to make a similar commitment domestically. If it doesn't act to phase down coal use sooner than currently planned, analysts say the world stands little chance of fulfilling the most ambitious goal of the Paris climate change agreement of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"It's an extremely tough target to meet without China addressing domestic coal consumption," said Jane Nakano, a senior fellow in the Energy Security & Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In welcoming China's pledge to stop building overseas coal, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the global phaseout of coal the "single most important step to keep the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement within reach."

The United States and the European Union, two other top emitters, retired a record amount of coal-fired power plants in 2020, but the opposite is happening in China.

China commissioned 38.4 gigawatts of new plants last year, representing 76% of the world's total new coal plant starts, holding back global progress, according to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis group.

That's more coal than what was retired outside China last year (37.8 gigawatts).

Overall, China hosts over half of the world's operating coal fleet.

Greenhouse gas emissions declined by a record amount globally last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which led to restrictions on travel and other economic activity.

But China started its recovery before other countries, leading a number of provinces to ramp up coal production and consumption in response to economic loss caused by the pandemic.

"China's recovery from the COVID-19 shock has unfortunately followed the old playbook of massive amounts of wasteful construction and industrial projects, causing emissions to increase far above pre-pandemic levels," said Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

China has been responsible for two-thirds of global carbon emissions growth in the past decade — and all of the growth in the past year, according to Myllyvirta.

The post-lockdown emissions surge is now reversing and could open up the chance for China to commit to begin reducing its emissions ahead of schedule.

China has promised to reach carbon neutrality across its economy by 2060, along with peaking emissions before 2030, but the country has so far ignored pleas by President Joe Biden and other world leaders to commit to specific near-term actions that would enable earlier peaking.

"The elephant in the room remains China's unwillingness to bend down its total emissions curve this decade," said Paul Bledsoe, an adviser with the Progressive Policy Institute.

Xi announced at a virtual climate summit Biden hosted in April that China plans to phase down its coal use in the second half of this decade.

But the country's latest five-year development plan, approved earlier this year, allows for expanded coal plant construction at home until then.

Nakano said the Chinese government remains reluctant to confront domestic coal and fossil fuel interests.

"It's much more of a political economy question than strictly looking at it as one of electricity needs," Nakano said. "Politically, they are not ready to do it."

Over the last half-century, China's large manufacturing-based economy has primarily been fueled by coal.

Coal extraction and mining continue to be important job sectors in China.

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Kelly Sims Gallagher, who directs the Climate Policy Lab at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said China needs to take on the challenge of managing what "a just transition will look like for its coal industry workers."

"This traditional pattern of increased investment in coal during times of economic stress is incompatible with a low carbon future — and especially with the 1.5-degree temperature goal," Gallagher said.

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