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.
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A new major coal-fired power project in northern China has partially gone into operation after a 1,000-megawatt unit began generating electricity in late December. Its operator said that the plant – described by Reuters as “giant” – is the largest coal-fired power project currently under construction in China.
Meanwhile, China’s meteorological authority announced that 2021 was China’s hottest year on record. A spokesman said that the country’s average temperature in 2021 was 10.7C – 1C higher than “usual”. It also noted that extreme weather events had been “widespread” and “frequent” in China last year.
Furthermore, China has introduced a new policy prohibiting companies from expanding or building new production facilities for some hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – potent pollutants used mainly in fridges and air conditioning. One expert told Carbon Brief that the policy is “a significant boon” to China and the world’s fight against climate change.
Major coal-fired power project launches first unit
WHAT: A major coal-fired power project in Inner Mongolia launched the first of its four 1,000-megawatt (MW) generating units on 27 December after it had passed a trial run of 168 hours. The project’s operator – a subsidiary of the state-run GD Power Development – announced the news through social media on the same day. The firm said that the project – situated in an energy and chemical base called Shanghaimiao – is the largest coal-fired power project under construction in China. A seven-kilometre (4.3-mile) railway linking the base with the town’s train station has been built to help with coal transport, according to a separate release.
WHERE: The project is situated in Ordos, a city known for its rich coal resources. Ordos is one of China’s nine “large-scale coal-fired power bases’” responsible for generating and transmitting power to more economically developed areas in eastern China. According to the project’s operator, this particular plant is a “key supporting project” of a wider national project that aims to transmit ultra-high-voltage electricity for 1,238 kilometres (770 miles) from Shanghaimiao to Linyi, a city in the eastern coastal province of Shandong.
WHEN: The news came less than two months after China – alongside India – was accused of “watering down” the final COP26 deal by pushing for the wording of “phase down” instead of “phase out” for the use of coal. (Read Carbon Brief’s analysis of the key outcomes of the UN climate talks in Glasgow.) Reuters wrote that China was “under fire for approving new coal power stations as other countries try to curb greenhouse gases”. The outlet noted that, according to its operator, the plant’s technology “was the world’s most efficient, with the lowest rates of coal and water consumption”. It also said that Beijing’s current pledge would only see it starting to reduce coal consumption after 2025, “giving developers considerable leeway to raise capacity further in the coming four years”.
HOW: Prof Yuan Jiahai from the North China Electric Power University in Beijing told Carbon Brief that although the 1,000-megawatt unit had just been commissioned, it was part of a “backlog” coal-fired power project that had been approved in 2011. According to a previous government notice, construction of the project – which boasted an investment of around 22bn yuan (£2.6bn) and a planned transmission capacity of 10,000MW – began in March 2016. Prof Yuan said that, “in general, as a base for coal and coal-fired power, Inner Mongolia will continue to shoulder the tasks of sending out power [to other places] on a large scale”. He added that the regional government had emphasised the importance of developing clean energy and the clean use of coal, and such policies also apply to those projects in the pipeline.
BIGGER PICTURE: China’s president Xi pledged last September that the country “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”. But international leaders and politicians – such as Boris Johnson – have urged China to phase out the domestic use of coal, too. As China faced international pressure, a series of power shortages that struck a large part of China late last year led the country to ramp up its coal production capacity to ensure “energy security”. Last month, the central government stressed in its economic planning meeting for 2022 that “traditional energy” should “exit gradually” on the basis of “safe and reliable new energy”. Prof Yuan expected the Shanghaimiao plant to “play its strength in the [country’s] development of comprehensive clean energy bases and cross-regional power transmission”. He noted that, even though coal power “still has certain room for growth” in China, the general direction of the 14th five-year plan (14FYP) is to “control the total production capacity [of coal power] on the basis that new coal power plants would be strictly controlled”. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A of the 14FYP.)
Average temperature of China in 2021 ‘highest’ on record
WHAT: The average temperature of China in 2021 has set “a historic high”, according to the China Meteorological Administration (CMA). The authority – which takes care of administrative affairs and scientific research for meteorology – said last week that the country’s average temperature over the past 12 months was 10.7C, the highest since the record began in 1961 and 1C higher than “usual”. (The CMA uses a 30-year average from 1981-2010 as “the value of recent years” or the “usual” value for meteorological calculations, according to its 2020 National Eco-Meteorological Bulletin.) It noted that 12 provincial-level jurisdictions – including the densely populated regions of Jiangsu and Zhejiang on the east coast – had seen record-breaking average temperatures. The CMA released the above statistics at a monthly press conference on 29 December. The South China Morning Post covered the story.
‘HOT’ DAYS: Song Shanyun, the CMA’s spokesman, said that the number of “hot” days on average across the country was the second highest since 1961, according to the transcript. He added that the highest temperature of 28 cities and towns exceeded “historic extremes” in August. He stated that southern China had registered 5.7 “hot days” in autumn between 1 September and 6 November, another record high. Song also summarised “five weather traits” of China in 2021: a great number of “hot” days, widespread and back-to-back regional droughts, a less-than-average number of typhoons, an early onset of sandstorms and a colder winter on both ends of the year due to “double-dip La Niña”.
MORE RAIN: The northern part of China also experienced its second wettest year on record in 2021 – after 1964 – Song said. He explained that 697.9mm of rain had fallen on northern China last year, 40.6% more than “usual” for that part of the country. Severe downpours battered the central province of Henan in July, with its capital Zhengzhou registering 201.9mm of rainfall in the space of an hour, setting a “historic extreme”, he noted. (The heavy rain triggered devastating flooding, leaving 302 people dead and 50 people missing in Henan, state news agency Xinhua reported previously.) Across China, the average annual rainfall stood at 671.3mm, 6.8% more than “usual”, per official figures.
EXTREME WEATHER: Spokesman Song said that extreme weather events had been “widespread, frequent, intense and concurrent” in China last year, with both the average temperature and amount of rainfall in the north being “extreme”. The CMA also published a list of China’s top 10 weather events in 2021. The list mentioned – among others – the record-breaking rain in Henan, “meteorological droughts” in southern China, the “lingering” typhoon In-Fa, “frequent and intense” cold waves since autumn and the “worst-in-a-decade sandstorm” that struck Beijing in March. (Check the CMA’s list of top 10 weather events for China in 2021 and its list for abroad.)
SIGNIFICANCE: At the press conference, the CMA did not directly link any of the above events to climate change. However, Jia Xiaolong, deputy director of National Climate Centre – a subsidiary of the CMA – implied the role of climate change. Jia described China’s “weather and climate situation” in 2021 as “unusual in a prominent manner”. He said: “The multiple and frequent occurrences of extreme weather events have become normal against a backdrop of global warming, posing great challenges to meteorological disaster prevention and mitigation.”
HFC: China issued a new policy in late December to limit the production of some HFCs in order to “gradually reduce” the production and use of all HFCs. The policy blocks new construction or expansion of the production capacity for five HFCs with wide usage and high global warming potential (GWP), Han Wei – deputy director of the Industry Programme at Energy Foundation China – told Carbon Brief. The five elements are HFC-32, HFC-134a, HFC-125, HFC-143a and HFC-245fa. The first three “account for 75.2% of total HFC production, and have wide usage in industrial and commercial air conditioning and refrigeration, as well as automobile air conditioning,” Han explained.
‘SIGNIFICANT BOON’: Han described the policy as “a significant boon” to not only China’s but also the world’s fight against climate change. “This is because China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of HFCs, with exports accounting for more than half of China’s total HFC output. By controlling the availability of high GWP HFC products in China, exports of these products can be expected to go down,” she said. She added that the policy is a “big step forward in the global effort to bring down emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases”. China ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on 15 September last year. The international agreement aims to reduce the use of HFCs by more than 80% by 2047. China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal includes the neutralisation of HFCs, according to Beijing’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.
COAL: Indonesia’s decision to ban coal exports in January will lead to a “limited impact” on China’s coal supply, the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times reported. Indonesia – China’s largest overseas coal supplier – halted exporting coal temporarily from 1 January due to concerns of domestic supply shortages. The Global Times said that the ban’s “impact on China’s coal supply, which is heavily reliant on domestic output since imports only account for about 10 per cent, will be limited and controllable”. It cited Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University in China. The South China Morning Post and Bloomberg also assessed the ban’s implications for China.
INNER MONGOLIA: China’s resource-rich Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region produced more than 1.05bn tonnes of coal in 2021, a rise from 1.006bn tonnes in 2020, Xinhua reported, citing estimates from the local energy bureau. Situated in northern China, the region also delivered the highest volume of coal to other provincial-level regions last year, the state-run newswire added. Another post shared by the Inner Mongolian Energy Bureau said that a total of 125 coal mines had adjusted and increased their production capacity in 2021, turning out an extra 190m tonnes of coal to ensure the country’s energy supply. Inner Mongolia is one of China’s largest coal-producing regions. In 2020, it ranked second in coal production after the province of Shanxi.
‘ARTIFICIAL SUN’: A Chinese scientific device known as an “artificial sun” set a world record last month after maintaining a plasma temperature of 70mC – around 4.5 times as hot as the core of the real sun – for longer than 17 minutes, Xinhua reported. The device, called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), is designed to replicate and then control the nuclear fusion process occurring naturally in the sun with the aim of providing almost infinite clean energy, according to a previous Global Times report. The outlet said that EAST successfully ran at 70mC for 1,056 seconds on 30 December in an experiment. Last May, EAST set a world record after achieving a plasma temperature of 120mC for 101 seconds.
SOE: China’s central state-owned enterprises (SOEs) – whose management is directly led by the central government or its affiliations – have been directed to cut their “comprehensive energy consumption” per 10,000 yuan (£1,165) of output value by 15%, compared to their 2020 levels, during the 14FYP period (2021-2025). These enterprises – which include power generators, construction companies and manufacturing firms, among others – have also been instructed to reduce their CO2 emissions per 10,000 yuan of output value by 18%, compared to 2020, over the same period. The orders are among a series of commands issued by China’s state asset regulator to SOEs to help the nation achieve its 2030 and 2060 climate targets, according to an official post on 30 December.
14FYP: China has released a 14th five-year “development plan” for the “raw materials” industry to replace individual plans for relevant sectors, including petrochemical, iron and steel, nonferrous metals and building materials. The plan was published on 29 December by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). Among other instructions, it stipulates that the level of “green” development for the “raw materials” industry should be “greatly increased” during the 14FYP period. It also directs the industry to research and promote new technologies, as well as implementing “low-carbon trial projects”, to drive its “green” development.
- In 2021, extreme weather woke China up to climate change – Yuan Ye, Sixth Tone
- 2021 in coal: China’s dirty recovery mars international finance crackdown – Chloé Farand, Climate Home News
- Commodities 2022: China’s carbon market to expand, build capabilities – Ivy Yin and Eric Yip, S&P Global Platts
- Comment: China needs to evaluate efforts for greener digital economy – Li Yan, Caixin
A new study has assessed the health and environmental benefits, as well as heating costs, of the “clean” residential heating transition in northern China. It found that although all clean heating options reduce the emissions of air pollutants and thus reduce the number of premature deaths that result from the air pollution, the carbon emissions of the various clean heaters “vary greatly”, according to Prof Denise L Mauzerall, a co-author of the paper and professor of environmental engineering and international affairs at Princeton University in the US. She told Carbon Brief that electric resistance heaters run on a carbon-intensive grid can increase CO2 emissions relative to coal stoves, but heat pumps generally reduce CO2 emissions, particularly as the grid decarbonises. “Due to their high efficiency, operating costs for heat pumps are lower than other clean heaters making them a good long-term choice,” Prof Mauzerall added.
The economic impact of a deep decarbonisation pathway for China: a hybrid model analysis through bottom-up and top-down linking
Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change
A new study has evaluated the macroeconomic cost of a “deep” decarbonisation pathway for China. The paper found that deep decarbonisation increases the energy expenses of Chinese households in the “mid-run” due to the “higher” cost of electricity. But it also found that companies will benefit from “moderate” decarbonisation due to reduced coal and oil consumption. “As a result, energy-efficiency improvements lead to a reduction in firms’ total energy costs, partially compensating the crowding-out effect of low-carbon investments on general productive capital,” the paper said.
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