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china briefing
19 May 2022 16:24

China Briefing, 19 May 2022: China to ‘significantly overachieve’ 2030 targets; Sea levels ‘highest on record’; Power cuts ‘must not occur’

Carbon Brief Staff

19.05.2022 | 4:24pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 19 May 2022: China to ‘significantly overachieve’ 2030 targets; Sea levels ‘highest on record’; Power cuts ‘must not occur’

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China digest. 

We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China.

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China is set to “significantly overachieve” its announced climate targets for 2030, with its emissions projected to peak “by 2025”, according to a new Carbon Brief guest post. However, the post also said that China’s emissions trajectory and current targets are “incompatible with” what would need to happen on a global level to limit warming to 1.5C. The article is written by Swithin Lui, China lead at Climate Action Tracker, based on the organisation’s latest assessment.


China’s sea levels reached their “highest on record” last year, Reuters reported, citing a government bulletin. The bulletin said that China’s coastal sea levels in 2021 measured 84mm higher than “average years” and were the highest since 1980 – when the records began. The news showed the “stark threat” China is facing from climate change, an expert told Carbon Brief.

China’s leadership has ordered the country to release “advanced coal production capacity”, stressing that power cuts “must not occur”, China’s state media reported. The news came as state media also said that China’s premier Li Keqiang had ordered the country to lift coal production restrictions “when necessary” and accelerate the construction of “mature” projects that could “increase production capacity”.

Key developments

China’s sea level last year ‘highest on record’ 

WHAT: China’s coastal sea levels were the “highest on record” in 2021 due to “rising water temperatures and the melting of glaciers and polar icecaps”, Reuters reported. Last year, China’s coastal sea levels were 84mm higher than the “average over the period from 1993 to 2011”, the newswire noted. China Science Daily covered the same bulletin. The newspaper said that, according to the bulletin, China’s coastal sea levels follow a “fluctuating upward trend” in general and have been at their highest in the most recent 10 years, compared with the past four decades.

WHO: The annual bulletin was published by the National Marine Environmental Monitoring Center – a branch of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources – on 7 May. It explained the changes of China’s coastal sea levels over the past year, analysed its relationship with climate change and proposed responses and adaptation measures. 

WHEN: From 1980 to 2021, China’s coastal sea levels rose at an average rate of 3.4mm per year from 1980 to 2021, more than the global average over the same period, according to the bulletin. Moreover, in the next 30 years, China’s coastal sea levels are projected to rise a further 68-170mm, the document said. It called for the “enhancement” of coastal defence and the “comprehensive improvement” of human beings’ adaptive capabilities for rising sea levels. 

WHY: The bulletin attributed the causes of rising sea levels to the various consequences of global warming, especially the swelling and rising of temperatures of seawater and the melting of on-land glaciers and polar icecaps. It noted that, in addition to global warming, China’s coastal sea levels are also “closely related” to other factors, such as local land subsidence. 

WHERE: The report came as several coastal regions in southern China experienced what was described as the “heaviest” rainfall yet this year since the start of the rainy season. CCTV, the state broadcaster, said on 12 May that torrential rain had struck Guangxi, Guangdong and Fujian, causing roads to be inundated, trains to be suspended and schools to be closed. Xinhua, the state news agency, reported on 11 May that more than 27,000 residents of Guangxi had been “affected” by “extensive heavy” rains, which had triggered flooding in 22 counties and “affected” 2,392 hectares of crops. Guangdong recorded its “heaviest rainfall in May since 2003”, according to the South China Morning Post. China’s National Climate Center forecast that this year, “flooding in the north and south of the country could be as bad as last summer when torrential rain killed hundreds”, Bloomberg said on Tuesday.

SIGNIFICANCE: The news that China’s sea levels reached “their highest level on record” last year shows the “stark threat” China is facing from climate change, said Patrick Verkooijen, chief executive officer of the Global Center on Adaptation, an international organisation working as a “solutions broker” for adaptation action. Verkooijen told Carbon Brief that China must adapt to growing climatic impacts – and fast – or the lives and livelihoods of its people will be “severely impacted”. He added: “Climate change is happening right now and China is in the eye of the storm.”

ADAPTATION: Human beings “must accelerate adaptation action to deal with our new climate reality”, particularly with rising sea levels, Verkooijen said, adding that his organisation is “working closely” with the Chinese government to draw up adaptation plans for the country for the coming decades. He said: “China has already recognised that it has to adapt to build resilience. China has also had the foresight to know that it cannot do it alone.” 

‘SPONGE CITIES’: Verkooijen noted that, even though Shanghai – China’s financial hub situated on the eastern coast – has built 520 kilometres of protective seawall to reduce rising sea exposure, half of the city is “still at risk” of being flooded by 2100 due to the impact of land subsidence. He stressed that, as a result, mankind must “re-imagine the way we construct our cities and transform them from concrete jungles that have a concerning environmental toll to cities that let water in”. China – together with the Netherlands where Verkooijen’s organisation is headquartered – are “already world leaders” in implementing solutions such as the “sponge cities”, which are built with infrastructure designed to create permeable water systems to prevent flooding and replenish water supplies, according to Verkooijen. (One of China’s “sponge cities”, Zhengzhou, however, was struck by deadly flooding triggered by heavy rainfall last July, leading to debate over the urban design model.)

Chinese leaders say power cuts ‘must not occur’

WHAT: China’s leadership emphasised that power cuts “must not occur” in the country at a high-level meeting last week. The instruction was issued by the State Council, China’s top administrative agency, at a meeting chaired by China’s premier Li Keqiang on 11 May, reported Xinhua, the state news agency. The State Council announced a series of measures to help coal power companies deal with financial difficulties and generate “more electricity” to ensure the “normal” supply of energy, Xinhua said. The authority also ordered the country to release “advanced coal production capacity” in a “safe and orderly manner”. 

WHO: Four days after the State Council meeting, an article carrying the byline of Xi Jinping, China’s president, in Qiushi – a magazine affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party – delivered a similar order. In the 4,550-character article – which was part of a speech made by Xi last December – Xi said that he had instructed his top officials that “major incidents, such as large-scale ‘power outages’ must not be allowed to happen again”. The order was mentioned in a section of the article that called on the country to “correctly understand” and “grasp” the carbon-peaking and carbon neutrality pledges. Xi repeated several directions in the section, such as “establishing [new rules] before breaking [old ones]” and making plans in an “overall and coordinated manner”. (Carbon Brief has explained these orders.) He also repeated that China must achieve carbon peaking based on the “national reality” that coal is its “main” energy source.  

WHEN: The no-power-cuts instructions came after Bloomberg reported that Shanxi – China’s largest coal-producing region – had been instructed to guarantee thermal coal supplies to some coastal industrial hubs that were “threatened by power shortages”. The outlet said that “the move is designed to avoid any repeat of the power crunch that struck in the fall”. Around two dozen Chinese provinces were struck with serious power shortages late last year, with factories having to halt operation and residents facing blackouts. The power shortages led the Chinese leadership to boost coal production and increase coal supply. (Read Carbon Brief’s analyses of last year’s power shortages and the ongoing “coal push”.) 

WHERE: The energy authorities of “many” regions – including Guangdong, Yunnan, Hebei, Mengdong, Mengxi and Guizhou – have taken “precautionary measures” and issued notices to ensure that electricity would be consumed in an “orderly” manner in case of power shortages during summer, China Energy News reported on 12 May. The state-run industry newspaper said that, according to “various industry insiders”, electricity supply and demand during the peak demand season in summer would be “largely balanced”, but the supply in “some areas” during the peak hours would be “tight”. Prof Chen Haoyong – director of the Institute of Power Economics and Electricity Markets at South China University of Technology – told the outlet that the electricity demand of coastal manufacturing hubs had started to decline following a post-pandemic surge, but the inland provinces were likely to see a “tight” electricity supply this year.

HOW: China’s premier Li Keqiang gave extra instructions on how to release “advanced coal production capacity” in a separate State Council meeting in April, Xinhua reported. Li said that production restrictions should be lifted “when necessary” and the construction of those “mature” projects aimed at increasing production capacity should be started in an “accelerated” manner, according to the report. Li also instructed the nation to “plan ahead and speed up the development of new power-generating projects”. (According to the context of Li’s speech, “power-generating projects” here should mean coal power projects specifically.) 

OTHER ORDERS: The Chinese government has taken a series of steps to ensure coal supply and boost the development of the coal industry in general. For example, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s state economic planner, released a notice on 7 May to clarify the definition of “price gouging” by operators in the coal industry. (High coal prices were one of the causes of last year’s power shortages.) The document was followed by statements by Meng Wei, the NDRC’s spokesperson. Meng said on Tuesday that the NDRC would “closely monitor” the changes of coal prices and summon relevant parties for talks “immediately” when coal prices are “outside a reasonable range”. Elsewhere, the NDRC released a set of industrial standards for the “clean and efficient” use of coal on 10 May. The document called on the nation to promote the “clean and efficient utilisation of coal” and facilitate the “transition and upgrade” of coal consumption.

Other news

DATA CENTRES: Data centres – which house IT and computing systems and infrastructure – are facing “unprecedented energy consumption and heat dissipation challenges”, reported China’s Science and Technology Daily. The outlet said that the number of data centre racks in China is expected to exceed four million in 2022. It noted that the total energy consumption of all data centres is projected to surpass 200 terawatt hours (TWh) between 2020 and 2021 and go above 250TWh in 2023 in China – equivalent to the total demand in Turkey or Australia. According to People’s Daily – the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China – China has established 153 “national green data centres” to drive the development of a “sustainable “digital economy. 

EDUCATION: China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) has instructed all of its affiliates to “raise the bar” in educating “specialist talent” in the field of carbon-peaking and carbon neutrality, reported CCTV. The directives, published on 7 May, urge the country’s educational system to accelerate setting up courses related to energy storage and hydrogen power, speed up “cultivating talent” related to carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and step up the development of “teaching resources” for carbon finance and carbon trading. The instructions also call for the establishment of “a batch” of colleges focused on “green and low-carbon” technologies, industries and energy. 

GUIDELINE: A group of influential organisations and companies in China – including Peking University, Tsinghua University and two departments under the Ministry of Ecology and Environment – have jointly released the country’s first guideline to quantify and assess the CO2 emissions reduced through citizens’ daily behaviours, reported China Daily. The guideline is also designed to “encourage the public to engage in green behaviours, promote the wide adoption of green lifestyles and contribute to the ‘dual-carbon’ goals”, the newspaper said. The document has introduced to the public 40 “green and low-carbon” behaviours under seven categories, covering all aspects of life.   

ETS: Four researchers from China’s Tsinghua University and Wuhan University have published a comprehensive report about the country’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS). The report explains the design principles and key features of China’s national ETS – which was launched in July last year – and assesses its first “compliance cycle” from 1 January to 31 December last year. The authors also analyse the outlook for the national ETS under China’s plan to shift its “dual-control” policy from capping total energy consumption and energy intensity, to capping total carbon emissions and carbon intensity. The planned switch ​”indicates a heavier responsibility that China’s ETS needs to bear”, the report said. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on China’s national ETS.)

DELAY: Caijing reported on 13 May that the expansion of China’s carbon market – which only covers the power-generating industry currently – would be postponed over “problems” regarding the quality of carbon emissions data. The Chinese financial publication said observers had expected three industries – namely building materials, nonferrous metals and steel – to be included into the market this year. It noted that, however, “multiple sources” had informed it “recently” that the incorporation would be delayed “by one to two years”, with the cement sector under building materials and the electrolytic aluminium under nonferrous metals to be incorporated “in 2023 at the earliest”. 

RENEWABLE: Gansu and Xinjiang failed to meet their “renewable energy consumption targets” in 2021, reported Chinese financial publication Caixin, citing China’s state energy regulator. This means that the two north-western regions – both rich in solar energy – did not accommodate the required percentage of renewable energy in their respective regional electricity consumption last year, the publication said. The Chinese government sees these targets as a necessary step for the country’s renewable energy industry to grow, reported Shanghai-based Jiemian News. The top two provinces in accommodating renewable energy last year were, in order, Yunnan and Sichuan, Jiemian reported. They are both major hydro power provinces situated in south-west China. 

COAL: China’s daily coal output saw an 11% increase compared to the same month in 2021, but dipped from a “record high” level in March, Reuters reported, citing the latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The year-on-year jump was “boosted by Beijing’s order to increase supply to ensure security of the country’s energy supply”, the newswire reported. It added that China mined 362.8m tonnes of coal last month, an equivalent to 12.09m tonnes per day, according to the NBS. China’s coal production has achieved “double-digit growth” for four consecutive months, according to the state energy regulator, reported the Global Times, a state-run newspaper.

ELECTRICITY: China’s electricity generation saw a 4.3% drop in April, compared to the same month last year, reversing its year-on-year increasing trend previously, the NBS said on Monday. The authority noted that the decline of China’s thermal power generation had quickened and the increase of hydro, nuclear and wind power generation had slowed down. China’s thermal power generation recorded a year-on-year 11.8% decrease last month, a 6.1 percentage point further decline on the March figure, according to the official figures. Hydro, wind and solar power generation also grew at a slower pace than March, registering a 17.4%, 14.5% and 24.9% increase year on year, respectively, the data showed. Lauri Myllyvirta – lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) – has analysed these statistics on Twitter.

EU-CHINA: Xie Zhenhua – China’s special envoy for climate change affairs – and Frans Timmermans – executive vice-president of the European Commission – held a video conference on Monday. The Chinese side said that it is “willing to strengthen cooperation with the European side to lead global climate governance with pragmatic actions”, reported China News Service, a state-run newswire. Timmermans tweeted that the two sides discussed “the road to” COP27 and “how to turn the Glasgow Climate Pact goals into ambitious actions”. He added: “The global energy situation only reinforces the need to decarbonise.” 

BRICS: The BRICS countries – an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have “renewed their joint commitment to tackling climate change and explored approaches to accelerating the low-carbon transition” at the BRICS High-level Meeting on Climate Change last Friday, Xinhua reported. The meeting was hosted by China via video link and attended by ministerial officials from all five countries. Huang Runqiu, the Chinese minister of ecology and environment and the chair of the meeting, said that “China will work with fellow BRICS countries to promote the full and effective implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement”, Xinhua said.

Extra reading

New science

Assessing climate risk related to precipitation on cultural heritage at the provincial level in China
Science of the Total Environment

A new study has assessed the threat that intense rainfall poses to cultural heritage sites in China. Dividing the sites into five categories based on their material and cultural characteristics, the researchers found that the risk “varies considerably”, with the overall risk of ancient cultural sites and ancient tombs “significantly higher” than the other three categories. The researchers also found that China’s central regions face the “highest overall” climate risk because of “high hazard and exposure”, followed by eastern and western regions. The paper’s corresponding author, Dr Li Huimin from Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, told Carbon Brief that the study creates a possibility of comparing the risk of cultural heritage in different regions and categories, “which contributes to the policymaking and risk management for cultural heritage conservation”.

Scenario simulations of China’s natural gas consumption under the dual-carbon target

A new paper has projected that China’s primary energy demand would peak “around 2040” at approximately 7bn of tonnes of standard coal equivalent (tce) and its CO2 emissions would peak “in 2030” at approximately 10.6bn tonnes in a “low transition” scenario, which is aligned with the country’s current climate pledges. The paper also found that, under the scenario, net-zero would be achieved by China in 2057 and 2059 under “high and low carbon sinks”, respectively. In particular, the study found that the consumption of “natural gas” is expected to peak in 2038 at around 630bn cubic metres, while the consumption of “industrial gas” is projected to peak around 2035 at approximately 450bn cubic metres, under the same scenario. Prof Wang Jianliang from China University of Petroleum, the paper’s corresponding author, told Carbon Brief that “natural gas” faces “huge uncertainty” during the transition of China’s energy system. Dr Wang noted: “Our estimated results provide some support for policymaking, which has significant implications for the national allocation of natural gas supply and demand, alleviating the contradiction between the supply and demand of natural gas.”

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