Thursday, December 1, 2022
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A climate challenge: China burns more coal


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China is ready to take advantage of the global urgency to tackle climate change: it is the world’s largest manufacturer and user of solar panels and wind turbines, leads the world in producing energy from hydroelectric dams and is building more nuclear power plants than any other country.

But it also burns more coal than the rest of the world combined and has accelerated mining and construction of coal-fired power plants, pushing the country’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 6% last year, the fastest pace ever. in a decade. And China’s addiction to coal is likely to last for years, if not decades.

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China needs to balance limiting greenhouse gas emissions with concerns about securing its own energy. The country has long seen coal, which is abundant in its territory, as the best way to avoid becoming overly dependent on energy from other countries and remain susceptible to unpredictable weather conditions, such as droughts, that reduce hydroelectric output.

In no country are climate risks greater than in China. Mainly because of its use of coal, it emits nearly a third of all man-made greenhouse gases — more than the United States, Europe and Japan combined. “There is no solution to climate change without reducing China’s coal burning,” said David Sandalow, a senior energy official in the Obama and Clinton administrations.

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The big question is whether China will use its new coal plants 24 hours a day or only occasionally as a backup to renewable energy. Its coal consumption alone produces more carbon emissions annually than the total US energy-related emissions in a year.

The Chinese push to build more coal-fired power plants, at a cost of up to $1 billion each, has alarmed Western officials. John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate envoy, warned last year that “the addition of more than 200 gigawatts of coal over the past five years, and now another 200 or more coming online in the planning phase — should that materialize — , all of which will in fact undo the ability of the rest of the world to meet a 1.5°C threshold in global temperature rise.”

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, said in an October report to the Communist Party’s national congress that the country would move faster to develop renewable energy and nuclear power. But he also emphasized energy security — strongly signaling an ongoing reliance on coal, of which China has more reserves than any other country. “Coal will be used more cleanly and efficiently,” Xi assured, without mentioning reduced consumption.

The possibility of China’s heavy reliance on renewable energy is visible in and around Hanhaozhuang, a village on the border between Beijing and northern Hebei province. It is a village where sheep pens with brick walls alternate with wire fences where gourds grow.

Just beyond the pens is a huge expanse of solar panels mounted on steel frames to keep them facing the sun, tilted at the correct south angle. The solar farm covers five times the area of ​​the village. Two rows of apple trees grow between each row of solar panels, providing residents with a cash crop.

About 20 kilometers to the southwest, in a swamp along the banks of a reservoir, there is a long line of wind turbines that turn the strong winds blowing from the Gobi desert into electricity for Beijing. And closer to the city, utilities built large gas plants. These measures drove Beijing’s coal use to a 95% drop in the decade to 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. The last coal mine in the region closed three years ago.

But Beijing hasn’t given up on coal, in case the weather gets too hot or too cold, increasing electricity demand, or if renewable energy isn’t enough. Huaneng’s huge thermal power plant, in the southeast of the city, is ready to power four coal-fired units, all taller than a ten-story building.

Other regions are much further away from giving up on coal. In Shanxi province, China’s coal heartland, companies over the past year have dramatically increased the pace at which they open new mines or expand them. Shanxi is also burning large amounts of coal to power cement factories, steel mills and other industries, and to generate electricity; coal consumption grew by 80% in the decade to 2020. Wind and solar power are also growing there, but their production levels were much lower.

Natural gas — which, when burned, releases about half the carbon dioxide of coal — offers a possible bridge between mineral use and renewable energy for China. The amount of natural gas the country promotes as a substitute for coal will have long-term consequences not only for its economy, but also for its relationship with Russia.

Gas imports from Russia are rising fast from pipelines and liquefied natural gas ships, despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This year, China nearly doubled its imports via a pipeline from eastern Siberia. But globally, Russian gas accounts for just one percent of China’s energy consumption and less than a tenth of its gas consumption. It is unclear how much additional volume China is prepared to buy from its northern neighbor, and is subject to intense speculation among western officials and energy analysts.

China is focused for now on coal. The Beijing region’s strategy of maintaining a giant coal-fired power plant to meet brief spikes in demand defies conventional wisdom in the global energy industry. Natural gas has been seen as a better choice to meet these peaks because gas turbines can increase electricity production in minutes or even seconds. Coal-fired power plants can take a few days to fire up if they are not running.

China is now investing heavily in retrofitting coal-fired power plants to upgrade them to meet peak electricity needs, according to Zhou Xizhou, a longtime Chinese energy expert who is now with S&P Global. Keeping coal-fired power plants running slowly — at 30% to 50% of capacity, as is the case in some Chinese cities — allows them to be brought quickly to full capacity when there is a shortage of renewable energy.

The danger to the climate is that electric utilities may not be happy with coal plants running only part of the time, said Sandalow, a former US energy official: “Once they’re built, there’s going to be pressure to use them more?”

Beijing has begun to allow electric utilities to charge much more per kilowatt-hour for coal-generated electricity during power shortages. The cost of electricity soared in August, when a drought in southwest China caused reduced hydroelectric power generation and a wave of blackouts. “This has led many companies to consider using solar panels on the roof of their factory,” commented Frank Haugwitz, a longtime Chinese consultant in the solar industry. China is now installing more solar panels each year than the rest of the world combined, with the electricity generating capacity of new installations doubling again this year.

Kevin Tu, member of the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, headquartered in Beijing, assured that the Chinese government is deeply committed to reducing air pollution and other toxic contamination, as well as meeting climate goals. But Beijing authorities will need to keep a close eye on local authorities to ensure they follow national policies, Tu said: “Within the local government, there are different interest groups trying to increase emissions at the provincial level. This would generate greater economic growth. in the short term, unfortunately at the expense of the environment in the long term.”

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I have worked as a journalist for over 10 years, and my work has been featured on many different news websites. I am also an author, and my work has been published in several books. I specialize in opinion writing, and I often write about current events and controversial topics. I am a very well-rounded writer, and I have a lot of experience in different areas of journalism. I am a very hard worker, and I am always willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done.

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