Despite the pledges China made at the recent global climate crisis summit to reduce emissions, their doubling down on coal-fired power plant projects reveals their true intent.
The Waigaoqiao coal-fired power plant in Shanghai is the source of dense smog like this, hovering over the city\'s Pudong Lujiazui financial district. Photo: Greenpeace Australia Pacific, via Twitter
China is committed to dominating the global comeback in the world economy and maintain that for decades to come. It will accomplish this in part by doing everything in its power to remain the world’s top carbon emissions producer, possibly forever.
The proof of this lay in the recent release of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) 14th Five-Year Plan. It was approved in the country’s National People’s Congress meetings in March 2021.
As part of that plan, the PRC agreed on mass investment in industries such as construction, steel and cement production, and other heavy industries. They also targeted growth in a broad range of manufacturing, from consumer appliances to computers, smartphones, automotive subsystems, and medical electronics.
The goal of all this, per President Xi Jinping, is to improve the lives of as many of the country’s 1.44 billion people as possible.
The power to support those industries comes for the most part from use of coal-fired power plants, both existing and new ones. In the last “normal” year of production, 2019, electrical power from those plants delivered 58 percent of the nation’s total energy supply.
The existence of those plants is also why China is responsible for 28 percent of all carbon emissions on the planet. Besides contributing to increased atmospheric emissions and accelerating global heating, the pollution from those plants hovers over many regions just as it used to elsewhere in the world some 70 years ago. The pollution contributes directly to health problems for China’s citizenry, but the government seems to feel sickening its people – and the planet as well – is a small price to pay for ramping up its economy to ever-increasing total revenues.
Even during the pandemic era, China pushed its economy forward so much that carbon dioxide emissions went up by 4 percent just in the second half of 2020.
While alternative energy options such as the use of biofuel, solar power, and wind energy are both possible and would drastically decrease emissions, China seems mostly not to care at all about what it does to the planet. According to public government plans, some 247 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants are now either in the planning stages, in pre-construction development, or being assembled at this time. Some 47 gigawatts of that total was approved only last year.
The combined power of just the new plants currently on their way to coming online in China is equivalent to around six times that of all of Germany’s existing coal-fueled power plants combined.
China is also actively keeping pace as the leader in building the single most toxic type of power plant in existence. In the PRC’s planning documents are additional plants which would contribute another 73.5 gigawatts of power for the country. That compares to only 13.9 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants proposed anywhere else in the world.
Since pledging to do something about the climate crisis is now the politically correct thing to do on the world stage, President Xi pledged in the recent Joe Biden led virtual climate summit to bring national carbon emissions to a peak by 2030. Xi also said he expected his country to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Even if Xi follows through on the carbon emissions peak pledge for 2030, a new analysis from Climate Tracker estimates China would still be producing between 12.9 to 14.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year for the next ten years. Those numbers amount to 15 percent more carbon emissions than China produced on average in 2015.
China’s current plans for achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 are even more muddled. According to Swithin Lui, an analyst at the New Climate Institute, Beijing is assuming some magic mixture of increasing use of renewable energy, hydrogen fuel cells, and more nuclear power is part of the plan. It also calls for my hydroelectric power, something which will likely create more havoc both for its own population and for the dam-based throttling of water resources it will increase for all countries within the Mekong Delta region.
The plan also includes assumptions it can engineer and deploy widespread use of carbon capture technologies which are to date not even proven on a small scale during this period.
No matter how the plans are explained, they still amount to little more than vapor for now. “There’s no implementation plan for that,” Liu said about the plans in a recent interview. “[China is] basically hedging for the future.”
Other experts, such as Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) China program head, Zhang Jianyu, are slightly more optimistic about what the country might be able to achieve. He is especially impressed by the country’s words about converting to a green economy in many sectors, in the next few years.
“For the first time,” he said in recent comments about the country’s plans, “the idea of green development is everywhere, it is across the board.”
Even in these words, however, there is a glaring contrast between what China claims it wants to do for the climate crisis and what it wants to do to maintain energy security for its massive economic engine. If it is electricity one is talking about, Beijing has detailed roadmaps for far more coal-fired power plants than any other country on the planet. If it is clean air that is needed, all that the PRC seems to be exploring are “ideas.”