How China’s top coal province is defying Xi Jinping’s ‘carbon neutral’ pledge

January 20, 2021, 7:36 AM UTC

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In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China’s carbon emissions would peak in 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2060. In the same year, coal production in China reached the highest level in half a decade and the top coal-producing region, Inner Mongolia, green-lit twice the number of coal-fired power plants as it did the year before.

Inner Mongolia has a population of around 25 million people, and much of China’s coal reserves are located in the landlocked northern region. Its main industries are coal power, rare earths, chemicals, and dairy production. The region’s gross domestic product has shot up over the last 15 years, driven by demand for coal and other minerals.

Authorities in Inner Mongolia approved an estimated 10.1 gigawatts of coal-fired plants last year—enough to power millions of homes—according to a report earlier this month from a Chinese coal industry publication analyzed last week by Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. If all the plants are build and become operational, the province’s annual coal use will reach 80 million tons per year, roughly equivalent to that of Germany.

Coal infrastructure projects in places like Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, China’s second largest coal-producer, “risk locking China into a high carbon pathway and derailing Beijing’s climate ambition,” said Li Shuo, global policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia, a non-governmental organization that advocates for environmental protection and global carbon emissions reductions.

Provincial governments in China are eager to recover from pandemic-induced economic slumps, and approving infrastructure projects is one way to stimulate economic activity in the short term, even as those approvals appear to contradict the central government’s climate directives.

“A drastic reduction in emissions requires rapid action from these sub-national players,” Li said, adding that the provinces have “indulged in a coal addiction for far too long.”

China is already the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal and, since 2006, the world’s top carbon emitter. The government hasn’t yet provided details about how it will reach carbon emissions reduction goals, but environmental analysts concur that China won’t be able to achieve the targets without immediately cutting down on the fossil fuel.

“What’s happening here is a last-minute effort by coal-dependent local governments and state firms to lock [in] as much polluting capacity as possible before emissions are due to peak and decline,” Myllyvirta said on Twitter, referring to Inner Mongolia’s coal plant approvals.

In March, China will launch the 14th Five-Year Plan, the government’s periodic set of economic growth targets, which is expected to include more information about how China will achieve its ambitious climate proposals—including cuts on coal power usage and caps on coal plant expansions.

“While the top leader is declaring a war against pollution, the recent infrastructure fever from Inner Mongolia can’t be seen as anything other than declaring war against Beijing’s vision,” Li said.