Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has promoted an uplifting vision for growth increasingly freed from greenhouse gas pollution, but turning that plan into action is already proving contentious.
The big issue is coal.
Mr. Xi’s climate-saving ambitions are a pillar of a plan for the country’s post-pandemic ascent that was endorsed by China’s Communist Party-controlled legislature days ago.
The plan is designed to steer the country toward two signature commitments that Mr. Xi made last year. China’s emissions of carbon dioxide would peak before 2030, he said, and the country would reach net carbon neutrality before 2060, meaning it would emit no more of the greenhouse gas than it takes from the atmosphere by methods like engineering or planting forests.
But unusually sharp debate has risen in China over how aggressively it should cut the use of coal, which has fueled its industrial takeoff yet made it the world’s top-polluting nation in recent decades.
Leon Clarke, a professor at the University of Maryland and a leading co-author of a recent study on China’s options for curtailing emissions. “On the one side, there’s a sense that coal has driven the economy and you don’t want to give that up. On the other hand, coal is the biggest target for climate action, particularly in the near term.”
China’s environmental pressures were brought to life last week as a thick smog hung over Beijing, reflecting an uptick in industrial pollution.
28 percent of the global total, roughly the same as the next three biggest emitters combined: the United States, the European Union and India. The accumulated emissions of the United States and other rich economies across the entire industrial era, though, remain much bigger than China’s.
Representatives of the coal industry attending the national legislative session in Beijing argued that China needs to keep burning coal, albeit in cleaner, more efficient plants.
The China National Coal Association issued a report this month proposing modest increases in its use for the next five years, reaching 4.2 billion metric tons by 2025, and also said China should create three to five “globally competitive world-class coal enterprises.”
“The principal status of coal in our national energy system, and its role as ballast, will not shift,” the association said in an earlier position paper about the industry’s outlook in the next five years.
Provincial governments have recently proposed more new coal mines and power plants, while vowing that their projects will limit emissions. In answer to the call for a carbon peak, Shanxi Province, one of China’s biggest coal producing areas, announced plans for 40 “green,” efficient coal mines.
Chinese officials in such areas also worry about losses of jobs and investment and the resulting social strains. They argue that China still needs coal to provide a robust base of power to complement solar, wind and hydropower sources, which are more prone to fluctuating. And many energy companies backing these views are state-owned behemoths that have easy access to political leaders.