China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported Monday that coal output at the country’s mines hit its greatest volume since 2015 in October, only days after Beijing watered down the language of the COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact so that the final communique pledged to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal.
According to the NBS, Chinese mines produced 357 million tonnes of coal last month, up from 334 million tonnes in September. National output increased 4% during the first 10 months of the year, compared to the same period last year as the government approved expansion plans at over 150 mines.
The country needs coal to keep its electricity running.
Starting in June, a shortage in hydropower and gas-fired electricity forced power providers in Guangdong—one of China’s key manufacturing hubs—to ration electricity for industrial users, forcing factories to temporarily suspend production lines.
The power crisis gradually spread to other provinces, and rationing efforts intensified from curtailing only industrial usage to limiting domestic consumption too. In some cities, residential blocks suspended elevator services to conserve power. In hot southern provinces, local governments implored households to go without air conditioning.
As the energy crisis roiled the economy and a cold winter loomed, Chinese authorities reversed a years-long position of winding down coal production and mandated miners boost output. In October, the government intervened to curb runaway coal prices, which had risen 400% since the start of the year.
Despite pledging to end overseas financing for coal projects last year, and curbing overcapacity in its domestic sector, China remains the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal. Beijing has vowed it will reach peak coal consumption by 2026, but environmental groups are wary of the nation’s renewed appetite for the black stuff.
As the COP26 meeting on climate change concluded on Saturday, negotiations over the final wording of the group’s communique were pushed into overtime by India and China, which submitted a proposal to change the group’s pledge regarding coal. An agreement to “phase out” coal was swapped for a weaker vow to “phase down” coal.
Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 meeting, who had set himself the task of “consigning coal power to history,” said the two countries would “have to explain themselves to the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.”
But other climate campaigners welcomed China’s involvement in the negotiations at all.
“China has taken a step forward in responding to the urgency of the climate crisis—recognizing the gap between its current efforts and the 1.5C target, emphasizing the need to do more this decade and committing to revisit its 2030 climate goal,” says Byford Tsang, senior policy adviser at climate think tank E3G. Tsang added, though, that China should have supported “a strong political commitment to phase out instead of ‘phase down’ coal power.”
China has a lot of leverage when it comes to replacing fossils with renewable energy. China is one of the world’s largest suppliers of renewable energy tech, such as solar panels and wind turbines. China is also the leading market for renewable energy, in terms of installed renewable energy capacity and, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China will account for half of all new renewable energy installations worldwide this year.
The surge in coal output last month could be a blip in China’s long-term push to wind down domestic coal production and bring more renewable power online. The polluting fossil fuel jeopardizes Beijing’s own climate objectives—to be net zero by 2060—and the commodity’s high costs make coal increasingly unviable, economically, as an alternative to renewables.
But Beijing’s reluctance to “phase out” coal entirely shows China values keeping coal stockpiled, perhaps to cushion against future crises.
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