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china briefing
CHINA POLICY
12 August 2021 16:00

China Briefing, 12 August 2021: Beijing’s response to IPCC report; Climate ‘blue paper’; Coal price rises

Carbon Brief Staff

12.08.2021 | 4:00pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 12 August 2021: Beijing’s response to IPCC report; Climate ‘blue paper’; Coal price rises

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s weekly China Briefing email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

China has insisted that it is implementing its climate commitments following the release of the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry said the global community should have “full confidence” in Beijing’s climate actions. AFP reported the story via France 24. Carbon Brief will publish an analysis piece presenting China’s latest quarterly emissions figures tomorrow.

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Meanwhile, a new “blue paper” – a report from an academic or a research team – has found that China has been “significantly affected” by climate change. The paper, released days before the IPCC report, said that China has seen an “obviously higher warming rate than the global average. It added that the country has experienced increasing extreme weather. The paper came after more than 300 people died in Henan province in severe flooding triggered by rainstorms described as “once in a thousand years”. 

Separately, new analysis has found that the unprofitability of China’s coal-fired power plants is “likely the highest on record” due to rising coal prices. It said that the country has seen “prevalent” blackouts and brownouts – partial loss of electricity – but coal power generators were shutting for maintenance to “avoid losses”. Chinese authorities have made a series of moves recently to increase coal production in a bid to tackle surging prices and tight supply, reported Xinhua.

Key developments

China’s warming rate outpaces global average, paper says

WHAT: China is a “sensitive” and “significantly affected” area of global climate change, according to a “blue paper” from the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), a state-affiliated public institution in charge of meteorological administration and research. The paper said that China’s surface temperature had warmed at a rate of 0.26C per decade between 1951 and 2020. The rate was “obviously higher” than the global average of the same period, which measured 0.15C per decade, the paper said. It added that China has experienced “rising” extreme weather events, such as heavy precipitation and high temperature. Various media outlets, such as Xinhua and Caixin, covered the paper.

WHEN: CMA released its findings last Wednesday, five days before the IPCC published its sixth assessment report (AR6). AR6 said that it is “unequivocal” that humans have warmed the planet, causing “widespread and rapid” changes to Earth’s oceans, ice and land surface. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A to learn more about the IPCC report.) Moreover, last Thursday, Greenpeace East Asia (GEA) published related analysis. It found that in 24 out of the 28 sample cities in China, the first “hot day” of the year – measuring 30C or higher in temperature – had “arrived earlier” between 2001 and 2020, compared to the previous two decades. (More about the IPCC and GEA reports in “Other News” below.) 

WHO: The “blue paper” was released by CMA’s Climate Change Centre, also known as the National Climate Centre (NCC). Established in 1995, the organisation is in charge of developing a national-level climate operating system, according to an official pamphlet. Chao Qingchen, deputy editor of the paper, told Beijing News that climate change is bringing “higher risks” and “bigger impact” to China.

HOW: The CMA paper noted that China’s annual average precipitation showed an “increasing trend” between 1961 and 2020, with an average increase of 5.1mm every 10 years. The “increasing trend” was “especially notable” in the southern parts of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, central and northern parts of the Tibetan Plateau and northern and western parts of Xinjiang, the paper said. Over the period, “extreme heavy rainfall events” increased while “extreme low temperature events” decreased, the authors noted. They also found that there have been “significantly more” extreme heat events since the mid-1990s. 

WHY IT MATTERS: The “blue paper” showed clear evidence that human influence is causing changes in the climate system in China, according to Prof Zhou Tianjun, a lead author of a chapter of the IPCC AR6. Prof Zhou, who works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Carbon Brief: “If we compare the key climate change indicators assessed in the ‘blue paper’ to that assessed in AR6 in a global perspective, we can see that climate change in China is a regional manifestation of global warming.” Prof Michael B McElroy from Harvard University told Carbon Brief that the “blue paper” provides an “important” account and context of the contemporary changes in China’s climate system. Prof McElroy noted that the paper highlighted the need for “immediate” investments in infrastructure that could “at least partially” mitigate future damage. “And it provides strong reasons for China to continue, if not expand, its current policies to reduce its emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases, promoting similar objectives elsewhere in the world,” he added.

Analysis finds ‘vast majority’ of coal fleet ‘unprofitable’

WHAT: Rising fuel prices have made the vast majority of China’s operating coal fleet “cash negative” in the first half of this year, according to a new report from TransitionZero, a London-based climate analytics firm. The report said that the unprofitability of coal-fired power plants is “likely the highest on record”, with only 29% of the units estimated to have seen gains in the second quarter of 2021 – compared to 67% in 2020. The analysis noted that coal-fired power plants in the country were only operating “around half the time”, despite “prevalent” blackouts and brownouts. On the same topic, Reuters reported that China’s coal buyers might face further price hikes in the second half of the year after safety checks had affected the output of coal mines.

WHEN: The analysis was released today and penned by Matt Gray, co-chief executive of TransitionZero. It came after a high-level political meeting instructed officials at all levels to ensure sufficient supply and stable prices of “bulk commodities” late last month. It also came after a team of Chinese officials visited Qinhuangdao, the country’s largest coal trading hub, and Tangshan, the country’s largest steel-producing city, to survey coal supply and pricing, reported financial outlet Yicai.  

WHERE: In another notable move, the state economic planner and energy regulator last week ordered 15 idle coal mines in five provincial-level regions to resume operations, reported state-run financial outlet jwview.com. Those 15 mines are situated in Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Xinjiang and had gone idle after finishing their “joint pilot operation” – a phase before being permitted to run officially – the authorities said in a statement. They directed the mines to extend their “pilot operation” for another year, which could increase the country’s daily coal output by 150,000 tonnes, they added. The state economic planner said yesterday that it expected the “coal supply and demand situation” to “improve further” due to increased production.

HOW: China’s domestic thermal coal prices have increased 30% since January, the TransitionZero analysis said, citing data. It explained that Chinese coal electricity companies had tried to get around a reported government ban on Australian coal since late last year by importing coal from Indonesia, Russia and the US, which caused the price of these contracts to surge. “This price volatility dwarfs any economic impact from the recently launched national emissions trading system (ETS),” the analysis added.  

WHY IT MATTERS: China’s fuel price volatility underscores the need for a “net-zero crackdown” in China, the analysis suggested. Gray told Carbon Brief that the pressure China’s energy complex was under was partially a result of “misaligned policy incentives”. Gray noted that although there were blackouts and brownouts, coal power generators were shutting for maintenance to “avoid losses”. He added that, at the same time, transmission capacity was only operating 40% of the time as provinces were “not incentivised” to trade with each other. He highlighted that the issue could prove a “significant barrier” to China’s carbon neutrality goal, if unresolved.

Other news

IPCC: China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that the global community should have “full confidence” in the nation’s climate actions after the latest IPCC report warned of “widespread, rapid and intensifying” climate change, reported AFP via France 24. The ministry said the country was implementing its climate commitments, adding that “China has insisted on prioritising sustainable, green and low-carbon development”, the newswire wrote. While covering the IPCC report, the Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, said that China and the US are “the world’s two largest CO2 emitters”, adding that the two countries “should join hands in limiting warming and tackling [the] challenge together”. 

EXTREME WEATHER: A study released by Greenpeace East Asia last Thursday concluded that the annual number of “extreme hot days” – those with temperatures at 33C or higher – has increased “significantly” in China, Japan and South Korea since 1961 due to global climate change and urbanisation. The researchers analysed temperature data of 57 cities in the three countries and found that hot weather was arriving earlier in the year in more than 80% of them. Al Jazeera covered the study. Li Zhao, a researcher from Greenpeace East Asia, told Carbon Brief that the analysis was “a stark reminder that all countries must leave fossil fuels behind and transition to clean energy as quickly as possible”.

MORE EXTREME WEATHER: “Heavy” and “extreme heavy” rain struck parts of Sichuan province in south-western China from Friday to Sunday, affecting more than 440,000 people and causing 80,794 people to be evacuated. The news, reported by state newswire China News Service, said residents living downstream of a reservoir in Dazhou were displaced after the reservoir’s water level exceeded the flooding limit by 2.2 metres. No casualties were reported. It came after rain-triggered flooding in Henan province claimed at least 302 lives last month. Reuters said the Henan floods were a “wake-up call” for local authorities to seek better insurance cover against natural disasters.

NUCLEAR: The potential expulsion of CGN – China’s largest state-owned nuclear company – from all future power projects in the UK would be “against the UK’s interests”, China’s embassy in London warned, reported China Daily, a state-run newspaper. An embassy spokesperson said that a suspension of the nuclear cooperation between China and the UK would stop the UK “benefiting from China’s advanced technology and capital investment”, among other impacts. (China Briefing explained the UK-China nuclear tensions last month.)

COAL POWER: China can meet its energy security and climate goals by capping its coal-fired power at 1,100 gigawatts (GW) – the current level – during the 14th five-year plan period which runs from 2021 to 2025, according to a study by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the North China Electric Power University. This is because renewables growth, a more flexible grid and demand-side resources could work together to meet electricity demand growth, Alvin Lin, climate and energy director of NRDC’s China programme, told Carbon Brief. Lin said that coal-fired power plants could be “set aside in reserve”. Moreover, “coal power should be operated more flexibly so that it serves mainly to complement growing renewables, as part of the power system with new energy at its core”, he added.

ETS: The trading volume of China’s national emission trading scheme (ETS) has been “decreasing”, according to the Global Times. On Sunday, the outlet reported that the scheme’s “accumulative trading volume” of carbon quotas had totalled around 6.14m tonnes since its launch on 16 July. It said that the figure was “a stark contrast” to that of the launch day, which stood at 4.1m tonnes. “Industry insiders” told the publication that there was “a noticeable wait-and-see attitude in the market”.

Extra reading

New science

The increasing global environmental consequences of a weakening US-China crop trade relationship
Nature Food

A new study has found that the US would face intensifying nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and increasing irrigation water usage in its agricultural production as a result of persistent US-China trade tension. The researchers said that the environmental impacts of the Beijing-Washington trade tensions affect not only the two countries, but also other nations and regions through international trade, adding additional pressure on those already stressed ecosystems. Dr Yao Guolin and Dr Zhang Xin, two of the paper’s authors from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told Carbon Brief: “Trade negotiations have often been focusing on its direct economic and political impacts, but it also has profound impacts on the environment for the two trade partners and the world, which will, in turn, have ineligible influence on their economic and social wellbeing.”

Population pattern and exposure under sea level rise: Low elevation coastal zone in the Yangtze River Delta, 1990–2100
Climate Risk Management

New research has assessed the possible population change in the low elevation coastal zone of eastern China’s Yangtze river delta during 1990 and 2100 and how sea level rise (SLR) would impact local residents. By employing a variety of datasets, the researchers found a trend of “remarkable population growth” in areas close to the coastline and lower altitudes from 1990 to 2015, and projected a rise followed by a fall in the population between 2020 and 2100. Different pathways showed that the exposed population to inundation would reach 86 million or 100 million by 2050 and then decrease to 55 million or 63 million by 2100. The paper wrote: “Long-term trend of population exposure to SLR will pose considerable challenges to regional development and planning. Different adaptation efforts should be taken in urban and rural settlements to avoid exacerbating impacts induced by SLR.”

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