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China is gaming the climate change agenda through promising emission cuts while developing coal mines to ensure energy reliability
China has persisted in pursuing a policy of modernizing its vast number of coal mines using the latest technologies in a bid to make them more productive, while Western nations are cutting down on traditional energy sources in order to meet climate change goals set by global entities.
In the 2015 United Nations’ Paris Agreement, many countries made pledges to cut down emissions, with the United States under the Obama administration agreeing to slash CO2 emissions by over 25 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, the agreement allows China to continue expanding its coal-fired power until around 2030 while only committing to achieving “carbon neutrality” by 2060.
President Donald Trump in 2017 withdrew the United States from the agreement, later calling it “a total disaster for our country” and “a giant transfer of American wealth to foreign nations that are responsible for most of the world’s pollution.” President Joe Biden rejoined the agreement within hours of taking office in 2021.
Western nations continue to crack down on fossil fuel use to limit emissions to their own detriment. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed tighter emissions restrictions for coal-fired plants, which experts say could make the electricity supply less reliable and more expensive.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s rush to modernize its coal mines signals the country is headed in a different direction, using technology to make coal mining more productive, with the Chinese Communist Party aiming to achieve basic digitization of all coal mines by 2035. The Hongliulin “smart mine” in Shaanxi province is one such modernization project.
The digitization in Hongliulin is being undertaken by Chinese tech giant Huawei, with the mine now featuring numerous 5G relay boxes, smart cameras, and sensors. The new method is said to have boosted coal output by almost a third, the company told AFP.
Huawei’s involvement is an indication that China might be looking ahead to maintain coal as a key energy source for many years, a possibility suggested by Xu Jun, head of mining digitalization at the company.
“Worldwide, coal and clean energy use will co-exist for a long time. The trend of intelligence in related industries is unstoppable,” he told the outlet, adding that many competitors were also setting up teams in this field.
The Institute for Energy Research (IER) warns that Beijing is not honest about its commitment to meet climate targets. “If one believes that China is going to keep to its climate accord commitments to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, they should think again,” it said in a May 25 commentary.
“China is playing with the Western world, making commitments [it is] unlikely to keep, as it attempts to become the world’s number one superpower using its natural resources and all they can acquire to their highest extent.”
According to official figures, China had 4,400 coal mines by the end of 2022. If China were to deliver on its emissions pledges, these mines would be running at minimum capacity, IER pointed out, “However, based on its current actions and its investment in coal power plants and smart coal mines, China is betting on coal retaining its importance in fuel supply for years to come.”
Rising Coal Projects
According to a February report by the Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, coal power construction starts, new project announcements, and plant permissions “accelerated dramatically” in China last year—with two new coal power plants being permitted per week.
“50 GW of coal power capacity started construction in China in 2022, a more than 50 percent increase from 2021. Many of these projects had their permits fast-tracked and moved to construction in a matter of months,” the report said.
“A total of 106 GW of new coal power projects, the equivalent of two large coal power plants per week, were permitted. The amount of capacity permitted more than quadrupled from 23 GW in 2021.”
Of the total new capacity China permitted in 2022, 60 GW worth has yet to begin construction as of January 2023. These projects are expected to begin soon this year, the report said.
The Chinese coal industry is said to account for close to 20 percent of total global emissions, which according to analysts, is more greenhouse pollution than all the vehicles in the world combined.
Weakening Other Nations
Back in December 2021, the Global Warming Policy Foundation warned in a report (pdf) that Beijing is using the climate agenda as a tool to “strengthen its economy” while also deploying it as a “weapon for weakening other countries.”
Without using coal, the Chinese economy would decline and Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be unable to fulfill his ambition of making China the world’s hegemon by 2049—the centennial of when the Chinese Communist Party took power, the report pointed out.
“By pursuing unilateral climate policies, Western countries are hobbling their economies through rising energy costs, power blackouts, and other supply shortages as surely as wartime saboteurs might, only the damage is self-inflicted and systemwide,” it said.
“No weapon is more potent at crippling Western economies than the net zero agenda. China’s army here includes western environmental NGOs and media, who together give naïve politicians their marching orders.”
The West’s Dangerous Push for Dependence on Renewables
Unlike China, Western nations are increasingly ditching reliable fossil fuel sources and pushing renewable energy policies. This can have dangerous consequences for energy security due to high costs, overall unpredictability, and fostering dependence on China.
A report by industry experts Paul Bonifas and Tim Considine points out that “it is unknown what level of VRE [variable renewable energy] can be added to the [U.S.] grid before it breaks or becomes unaffordable.”
“However, it is all but certain that at some unknown point, the grid will become unreliable and costs will skyrocket. And yet, more VREs are built every year. Is a 100 percent renewable grid technology possible, is it reliable, and is it economical? No, no, and no.”
An IER analysis from December points out that Europe’s ongoing energy crisis is due to impractical policies the region implemented regarding energy management. Europe had earlier cut down on leases for oil and gas production, shuttered nuclear and coal plants, and banned hydraulic fracking—all the while promoting renewables.
When energy demand “came back with a vengeance” after the COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, Europe found itself without enough readily available energy to meet the demand.
A warm winter this time averted a regional energy disaster. Between 2004 and 2019, Europe spent more than $1 trillion on its renewable energy transition efforts. The region now needs to spend an additional $5.3 trillion to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Meanwhile, China stands to benefit from the West’s reliance on renewable energy sources as the country is the world’s largest supplier of renewable energy components and materials.
In 2020, China’s share of global polysilicon production was 82 percent, according to a 2021 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 2021, China accounted for 75 percent of global photovoltaic (PV) module production. Both materials are used in manufacturing solar modules.
In short, China controls the solar market with domination in all areas of production including polysilicon, wafers, cells, modules, deployment, and even the raw material supply chain.
Moreover, the solar manufacturing plants, many of them located in Xinjiang, employ forced labor from the local Uyghur population, contributing to human rights abuses that Western companies turn a blind eye to.
China also dominates the supply of raw materials necessary to build electric vehicles, such as rare earths that are critical in EV battery manufacturing.
According to an analysis done earlier this year by Visual Capitalist, six out of the top 10 battery manufacturing companies are Chinese, with the country accounting for 77 percent of battery production capacity. This advantage is estimated to continue for years to come.