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China doubles down on coal

3. No one likes power cuts, least of all authoritarian governments.

Many Chinese provinces ran critically short of electricity last fall. Factories suddenly went silent. High-rise office buildings had to be evacuated before their elevators stopped. Chemical factories lost power and, with it, their ability to control the heat and pressure in potentially hazardous operations.

In March, President Xi Jinping underlined that he would not let his country turn away from coal without making sure that reliable replacements were in place. “You can’t throw away the eating utensils in your hands before you have new eating utensils in your hands. That’s not OK,” he said at a meeting of China’s national legislature, which is controlled by the Communist Party. Energy security became a top imperative.

4. China’s emissions will grow, but also its renewable energy sources.

We have long expected China’s emissions to grow. The real question is by how much and for how much longer.

Xi has said that carbon dioxide emissions would peak before 2030. The country is on track to meet that target, even with the current coal boom, because China is also planning to add more wind and solar power capacity this year than the rest of the world did last year, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.

That isn’t enough to unseat fossil fuels, though. In 2021, wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear energy sources accounted for a little more than a third of China’s electricity mix. (By comparison, the United States draws around 40 percent of its electricity from sources other than fossil fuels.)

5. Beijing is pulling back from financing coal abroad.

China has said it will stop funding coal plants overseas. That’s important because China is by far the largest financier of coal projects globally, especially in Asia and Europe. Several overseas coal-burning projects have been canceled in recent years, in part because of popular opposition in those countries and in part because they don’t make as much financial sense as they did before, because the price of renewables has dropped sharply.

6. What’s next?

In theory, with new renewable energy installations coming online in the years ahead, China could dial down coal use. But that will be hard, Qin says, considering how many new plants are being built now in the name of energy security.

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