China burned over half the world’s coal last year, despite Xi Jinping’s net-zero pledge

Despite its pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, China continues to burn more coal than any other developed nation, relying on the fossil fuel to satisfy the nation’s surging demand for electricity.

According to a report released Monday by U.K.-based energy and climate research group Ember, China accounted for 53% of the world’s coal-powered electricity in 2020—nine percentage points higher than its share in 2015, when China joined the Paris Agreement.

“Despite some progress, China is still struggling to curb its coal generation growth,” Ember senior electricity policy analyst Muyi Yang said. “[F]ast-rising demand for electricity” in China continues to be satisfied by burning coal.

China’s electricity usage has surged 33% since 2015. According to the International Energy Agency, demand from China’s steel and cement industry—propped up by the state’s heavy infrastructure investment—is one of the primary drivers of electricity consumption, alongside increasing automation of the manufacturing industry.

To China’s credit, it supplied over half of its new electricity demand with renewable energy, Ember says. China is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy and the world’s largest investor in renewables. But China continues to power 46% of new—and 70% of total—electricity generation by burning fossil fuels.

According to Ember, China was the only G20 nation to increase coal-generation last year, with a 2% uptick. China is also among the largest foreign investors in new fossil fuel projects. In 2018, over 40% of funding from President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative was plowed into coal projects.

To reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060—a goal Xi set last September—China needs to slash the percentage of electricity generated by fossil fuels down from 46% to about 20% by 2050. But China’s own strategy for reaching net-zero doesn’t envision any cut in fossil fuel generation before at least 2030 and calls for adding more coal capacity before then.

“Progress is nowhere near fast enough,” says Ember global lead Dave Jones, speaking of the worldwide race to reduce the impact of climate change. “World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”

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