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china briefing
7 October 2021 15:41

China Briefing, 7 October 2021: ‘All out’ to beat power shortages; 2050 ‘net-zero’ for airlines; ‘Critical decade” for global warming

Carbon Brief Staff

07.10.2021 | 3:41pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 7 October 2021: ‘All out’ to beat power shortages; 2050 ‘net-zero’ for airlines; ‘Critical decade” for global warming

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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Chinese authorities have said that they would “go all out” to boost coal production in a bid to tackle widespread power cuts, according to state media. Around 20 provinces around the country have experienced electricity rationing and blackouts over the past month due to a mix of factors, including power-production shortfalls driven by a lack of coal.


Meanwhile, global airlines have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But, according to various reports, the resolution met “opposition” on Monday from Chinese airlines before being approved by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the trade association of the world’s airlines.  

Furthermore, John Kerry, US president Biden’s climate envoy, last week “encouraged” China to cut its emissions more “aggressively” before 2030, adding that the next 10 years would be a “critical decade” for tackling global warming, Bloomberg reported. In response, China said it “has always been taking actions to promote global climate governance”.

Key developments

Authorities ‘go all out’ to beat power shortages

WHAT: Various Chinese authorities have pledged to make every attempt to ensure a sufficient supply of coal and electricity for the country following widespread blackouts and power rationing. A government report from Monday said that a range of energy firms run by the Chinese Communist Party had called emergency meetings to “guarantee [the supply of] electricity, coal and heating” for the coming winter and next spring. This “wave of power curtailments” has impacted 20 provincial-level regions in China since the end of August, leaving factories grinding to a halt, cities cancelling light shows and shops relying on candlelights. (Read last week’s China Briefing for more.)

WHO: China’s leadership ordered major state-owned energy firms to secure supplies for this winter “at all costs”, Bloomberg reported last Thursday, citing “people familiar with the matter”. The source said that the order had come “directly” from China’s vice-premier Han Zheng during an emergency meeting last week. Last Friday, a separate Bloomberg report noted that the leadership had directed state-owned coal mines to produce coal “at full capacity for the rest of the year”. The report also quoted “people familiar with the matter”. 

WHO ELSE: The state-owned assets regulator said in a statement last Sunday that it had instructed the “main person in charge” of party-run electricity, coal and oil and petrochemical companies and inspected “relevant enterprises” to ensure supplies. The economic planning agency told a press conference last Thursday that it would coordinate with “relevant parties” and use “a thousand methods and a hundred strategies” – a Chinese set phrase meaning “making every effort” – to ensure the secure and stable supply of coal. Meanwhile, the China Coal Industry Association directed “all relevant companies” to “further” ensure thermal coal supply last Thursday. On the financing side, on Monday, China’s banking regulator ordered its subordinating departments to guarantee that “reasonable financing requirements” from the coal and power sectors be met.

HOW: Prof Yuan Jiahai from North China Electric Power University in Beijing told Carbon Brief that the “fundamental cause” for this round of power rationing was a shortage of coal supply, which led to the surge of coal prices. The high coal prices, in turn, forced coal-power companies – which have to sell their electricity at state-controlled prices – to cut back their production to avoid financial losses, Prof Yuan noted. “The more electricity the coal power companies produced, the more money they would lose,” he explained. Prof Lin Boqiang, dean of China Institute for Energy Policy Studies at Xiamen University in China, told China News Service, a state-run newswire, that “adjusting” electricity prices while “suppressing” coal prices could motivate electricity generators to increase their production. However, he added that “to boil the problem down, the supply of coal must be increased”. 

WHY IT MATTERS: China’s reliance on coal has gathered much attention in the lead up to COP26, with many calling on Beijing to cut its domestic use of coal. Explaining what increased coal output would mean for China’s climate goals, Prof Yuan told Carbon Brief that expanding coal production “appropriately” to ensure stable energy supply adheres to President Xi’s recent instructions on the coal sector. In particular, it reflects Xi’s directive for the coal sector to safeguard the “bottom line” that is the country’s “energy supply safety”. Prof Yuan said that the move also echoes the order of “rectify[ing] campaign-style carbon reduction”, which “clarifies that coal supply cannot be reduced or halted in a simple way to control coal consumption”. He believed that China’s target of peaking its carbon emissions before 2030 “will not change” and its use of coal “will start to reduce gradually after 2025”.

Airlines commit to ‘net-zero’ by 2050 ‘despite Chinese opposition’

WHAT: IATA – which represents 290 global airline companies – has committed to “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050 “despite Chinese opposition”, Reuters reported. Although the move has tied the aviation sector’s climate pledges to the 2015 Paris Agreement “for the first time”, it sparked “a backlash from Chinese airlines”, the newswire said. It added that the “opposition” reflected “differences between Beijing and the west over environmental policy weeks ahead of new global talks in Glasgow”. The resolution was approved on Monday at an IATA annual meeting in Boston in the US, the association said in a release

WHO: According to the Daily Telegraph, Shanghai-based China Eastern – one of China’s three biggest state-run airline carriers – proposed to push back the timeline to 2060. The newspaper noted that the proposal “was not seconded and was therefore dismissed”. The South China Morning Post reported that China Eastern’s cargo arm, China Cargo, had called on IATA to abide by “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), a principle under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The publication noted that China Southern Airlines – another major state-run carrier based in Guangzhou – also sought to amend the road map, but it failed to find any backers.

IATA’S RESPONSE: IATA confirmed to Carbon Brief that it had received “a number of comments” from Chinese delegates regarding the “net-zero” resolution, but it added that “[the delegates] did not always identify which airline they represented”. The association then said that Beijing-based Air China – the last out of China’s “big three” state-run carriers – had asked for CBDR to be reflected in the resolution’s wording. It explained that Air China’s request for amendment had not been seconded; therefore, it had failed to go forward to a vote. 

THE TARGET: IATA said that there are “no formal objectives or obligations” on individual carriers as a result of this new target. It stated: “The 2050 target is a collective effort of the industry that will take place over a 30-year timeframe.” Dan Rutherford, aviation programme director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, told Carbon Brief that, while IATA’s “net-zero” commitment is “a good step forward”, it is not legally binding either collectively or for individual airlines. “In order to achieve the goal, legally binding national regulations will be needed,” he said. 

WHY IT MATTERS: If Chinese carriers did not achieve “net-zero” by 2050, it would “create a very significant challenge for the rest of the industry”, according to IATA. But the association also said that the technologies being developed to achieve “net-zero” should be “cost-competitive” with fossil fuels by 2050, so Chinese carriers may choose to go for “net-zero” by that time “regardless of whether there is a formal target to do so”. Rutherford said it was “not surprising” that Chinese airlines would argue for global differentiation. But he pointed out: “What’s more significant is that they raised objections at the IATA meeting, but didn’t apparently vote against the resolution itself. That they didn’t formally oppose the resolution makes me think that the objection was more about political messaging than the actual content.”

Other news

‘CRITICAL DECADE’: John Kerry has “encouraged” China to slash more greenhouse gases before 2030, calling the next 10 years a “critical decade” in addressing global warming, according to Bloomberg. Kerry told Bloomberg he was hopeful “that President Xi will make the decision that they could move further with respect to the reduction of emissions during the course of the next 10 years.” In a separate interview with Sky News, Kerry noted that political tensions between China and the US had made it harder for him to do his job.

BEIJING’S REPLY: In response to Kerry’s comments to Bloomberg, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Beijing believed that “every year is crucial” for countries to increase their climate ambition. Hua said that “China has always been taking actions to promote global climate governance”. She added: “Developed countries should earnestly follow the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, face up to their historical responsibilities and show greater ambition and actions.” Read Hua’s statement in full here.

COP26: Meanwhile, Al Gore, former US vice president under the Clinton administration, said that China “could surprise the world” at COP26, Reuters reported. Gore noted that he believed China’s president Xi could bring forward one or both of his climate pledges, the newswire wrote. He was referring to Xi’s pledge in September last year that China would peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. Reuters added that Gore was “hopeful” that China and the US would set aside their differences at COP26.

‘DUAL INCREASES’: Some Chinese provinces with lower per-capita GDP could face rapid “dual increases” – in both energy consumption and carbon emissions – if they fail to follow a low-carbon pathway, according to Dr Yang Pingjian from the Chinese Academy of Environmental Sciences. Dr Yang said that several provinces, such as Henan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Guizhou, still have “great demand” and a “strong will” to develop their economy. “These provinces must avoid a sharp rise in carbon emissions brought by economic recovery or fast economic growth,” Dr Yang said. China News Service had the story.

COAL: President Xi’s recent announcement at the UN General Assembly that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad” sent out three key messages, according to Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the China and South Asian Studies Centre at Shanghai Institute of International Studies. Liu told – a Chinese news and commentary website – that the pledge was to stress China’s ambition to achieve its climate goals, send “positive signals” before COP26 for possible China-US climate cooperation and display China’s high regards for the UN over its role in the global efforts of tackling climate change.

NEV: “New energy vehicles” became a buzzword on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent to Twitter – during the country’s National Day holiday after motorists had taken to the popular platform to complain about their experience travelling with electric cars. According to China Energy News, one driver had to spend five hours queuing and recharging her vehicle in a service station. The outlet said that the main cause is the gap between the number of “new energy vehicles” on the road and available recharging points.

HIGH-PROFILE CASE: Ling Xiao, the former vice president of China National Petroleum Corporation, a major state-run oil and gas company, is under investigation on suspicion of “seriously violating discipline and law”, according to a notice from the provincial corruption watchdog of Sichuan. The notice said that Ling had turned himself in before being put under “disciplinary” inspection and investigation. The authority did not give details of Ling’s case.

Extra reading

New science

Sustained methane emissions from China after 2012 despite declining coal production and rice-cultivated area
Environmental Research Letters

A new study has found that China’s methane emissions have continued to increase over 2010-17 – albeit at a slowing rate – despite a decrease in emission activities such as coal production. The researchers said that the phenomenon might be caused by previously overlooked sources, such as fugitive emissions from abandoned coal mines and the growth in freshwater aquaculture. Dr Sheng Jianxiong, a research scientist at the Center for Global Change Science of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the paper’s lead author. He told Carbon Brief: “Methane is covered by China’s carbon-neural plan and its emission sources are much more complicated than CO2. Analysing China’s methane emissions right now – in particular, emission contributions from different source sectors – serves the needs of climate policy.” 

Anthropogenic influence on extreme temperatures in China based on CMIP6 models
International Journal of Climatology

A new paper has used updated observational data and CMIP6 climate models to analyse human-caused influence on extreme temperatures in China. The study found “continuous warming” in extreme temperatures in both their intensity and frequency during 1951 and 2018. The researchers also observed more intense and more frequent warm extremes and less intense and less frequent cold extremes in most Chinese regions. They found that “both greenhouse gas and anthropogenic aerosol influences can be detected and separated in most warm extreme indices but not in the cold extremes, while the natural forcing influence is negligible for most indices”. 

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