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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On Tuesday, state newswire Xinhua ran a story, announcing that the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region – one of China’s largest coal-producing provinces – had “restarted” more than 60m tonnes of coal production capacity. The report said that 38 mines, which had been ordered to halt their operation due to land-use violations, were all up and running again following government approval. The move occurred “when carbon neutrality met high coal prices”, part of the headline read.
Meanwhile, China Meteorological News reported that the Tibetan Plateau – home to some 46,000 glaciers – is suffering from “a fever” due to rapid global warming. The region’s average annual temperature has risen more than twice as quickly as the worldwide level in the past 60 years, the publication said, citing researchers. One professor told Carbon Brief that climate change over the region would “significantly affect” the life of around half of the world’s population.
Elsewhere, the closing price of China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) last Friday was the lowest the market had seen since its launch in mid-July, reported Angus Media. “China’s new carbon trading market isn’t working”, said Quartz while covering the news. On the other hand, new analysis predicted that the scheme could have “material impact” by the middle of this decade, even though its initial impact might be “limited”.
Dozens of coal mines resume operation to boost production
WHAT: 38 open-pit coal mines in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China have started running again after the local government approved their land-use applications, said an article syndicated by Xinhua. These mines – with a combined annual coal production capacity of nearly 67m tonnes – had been ordered to “cease operation” because of “incomplete land-use procedures”, the publication said. It added that they were expected to produce 200,000 tonnes of coal daily in August. The report explained that the move intended to tackle soaring domestic coal prices, which was driven by a shortage of supply. The piece was originally published by Workers Daily, the newspaper of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a Communist-Party-run organisation supervising the nation’s trade unions.
WHERE: All of these mines are situated in Ordos, according to Workers Daily. Known for its rich coal resources, the 87,000-square-kilometre city – slightly larger than Ireland – has more than 160bn tonnes of proven coal reserves, state-run People’s Daily reported in 2010. The volume is more than one-sixth of the national total, the official newspaper said. Between January and April this year, Ordos produced 213m tonnes of raw coal, more than 63% of the provincial total, according to official statistics. Province-wise, last year, Inner Mongolia turned out more than 1bn tonnes of raw coal and was the second-largest coal region in China after Shanxi, the National Statistics Bureau said.
WHEN: The report appeared on Xinhua and Workers Daily on Tuesday, but the coal mines had been authorised to run by 30 July, according to a notice from the state macroeconomic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). In the meantime, more moves had been made to reopen coal mines that had halted operation in Inner Mongolia. On 4 August, NDRC and National Energy Administration, the state energy regulator, ordered 15 “idle” coal mines with a combined daily coal output of 150,000 tonnes to conduct their “pilot operation” for another year. (Read this China Briefing for more details.) A week later, NDRC said that Inner Mongolia had applied to grant permanent land-use rights to seven open-pit coal mines with an annual production capacity of 120m tonnes.
HOW: Media reports suggested that the reopening of these Inner Mongolia mines were a response to soaring domestic coal prices, which, according to Caixin, had led to power rationing in “various places” and increased companies’ cost to generate electricity. However, the supply shortfall and spiking costs were not caused by emission-reduction activities, but a mix of other factors, Yu Aiqun, China researcher at Global Energy Monitor, told Carbon Brief. Yu said that one trigger was an anti-corruption campaign that Inner Mongolia had launched at the beginning of 2020. She said that the campaign, known as “probe backwards for 20 years (倒查20年)”, “slowed the coal production growth of this big coal region” in 2020. Another reason was that “China banned the coal import from Australia, the second-biggest coal exporter to China” at the end of last year, Yu noted. There was also “the impact from the pandemic globally and the [post-pandemic] recovery”, she added.
WHY IT MATTERS: Yu said that the “speedy resumption” of the operation of the 38 Ordos mines meant that environmental and social regulations could be “compromised” to meet the economic need – a phenomenon President Xi Jinping had criticised while addressing Inner Mongolia officials in 2019. Yu explained: “China is walking on a tightrope, trying to balance the economic growth and the environmental goals, including [peaking] emission[s] and [achieving] carbon neutrality. This is an impossible mission unless the economic growth is detached [from] the carbon emission growth.”
Tibetan Plateau in ‘fever’ due to decades of rapid warming
WHAT: The Tibetan Plateau – a vast plateau in south-western China with elevations between 4,000 and 5,000 metres – has warmed up more than twice as quickly as the rest of the world on average in the past 60 years, reported China Meteorological News, citing researchers. The publication, which is run by the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), said that the region is suffering from “a fever”, having seen its temperatures rising at a rate of 0.35C per decade between 1961 and 2020. It noted that the plateau has witnessed the fastest temperature increase in China – with two of its areas, Changtang and Qaidam Basin, warming by 0.4C every 10 years. Researchers predicted that the plateau would “maintain a warming trend” and experience “increasing risks of compound climate and environmental disasters”. Reuters covered the report.
WHO: The findings came from the second comprehensive scientific investigation of the Tibetan Plateau, China Meteorological News said. The expedition is a government-run research effort that began in 2017 and will last five to 10 years, according to Xinhua. Scientists embarked on the trip around 40 years after China’s first such investigation, which took place between 1973 and 1980.
WHERE: The Tibetan Plateau, also known as the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, is the highest and largest plateau in the world, covering an area roughly four times the size of France. The plateau and its surroundings are home to the largest number of glaciers outside the polar regions, according to a paper. It is also a “critical” region for the Asian water cycle and provides the headwaters for 12 major rivers in East, South and Central Asia, Wang Bin, a meteorologist and professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in the US, who was not involved in the expedition or the research, told Carbon Brief. The region has been nicknamed the “roof of the world” and the “water tower of Asia”.
OTHER FINDINGS: Researchers provided a series of other findings, according to the Chinese report. For example, the plateau is “no longer that cold”, its lakes have become bigger and “green” has appeared in deserts. The apparent environmental improvement had actually been caused by climate change, the report said. It added that extreme high temperature and precipitation events have “increased significantly” in the plateau in the recent 40 years, leading to “worsening disasters”. Prof Zhou Tianjun from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in the expedition or the research, explained what he thought were the most significant findings. He told Carbon Brief that fast warming has led to the retreat of glaciers, amplified thawing of permafrost – permanently frozen ground in high latitudes – and loss of seasonal snow cover in the plateau.
WHY IT MATTERS: Climate change over the Tibetan Plateau “will significantly affect the Asian monsoon and about 50% of the world populations’ daily life”, Prof Wang said, adding that “it is not just a regional climate and environmental change issue”. Prof Wang explained that the development of science on the plateau was “in urgent need” and that “Chinese scientists could make a breakthrough in the near future”. Prof Zhou noted that the loss of seasonal snow cover in the region would affect the ecosystem and the diversity of species. “Additional ecosystem responses to warming include the carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) fluxes from wetlands and permafrost, which would amplify global warming,” he added.
ETS: Prices of carbon emissions permits in China’s national ETS settled at 49 yuan (£5.5) per tonne of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) last Friday, the lowest closing price the scheme had seen since its launch on 16 July, reported Angus Media. The “record low” price was “the latest sign that the market’s structural flaws are preventing it from working as an effective weapon against climate change”, said Quartz. Meanwhile, Huang Runqiu, China’s minister of ecology and environment, said last week that the carbon market, as “a new thing to the whole society”, still had “many shortcomings and flaws” and “much room for improvement”. Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on the scheme.
MORE ETS: The national ETS could play “an important role” in China’s pursuit of “carbon neutrality” by “potentially reducing carbon emissions by 30% to 60% of current levels by 2060”, reported South China Morning Post. The outlet added that the scheme could bring about “material change” by the middle of this decade. It cited a new report released by the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change (AIGCC) and Schroders. Jane Ho, AIGCC’s director of investor practice, told Carbon Brief that the launch of China’s national ETS could be “one of the most significant drivers” of carbon reduction in Asia. Ho said that with the “right settings”, the scheme could be “instrumental” to China’s climate goals. But she also noted that it was “too early to make definitive statements” about its success.
EXTREME WEATHER: The Henan meteorological bureau released “several” red alerts – the most severe in China’s four-tier, colour-coded weather warning system – for heavy rain on Sunday, Xinhua reported. The state newswire said that various areas of the province – the third most populous in China – had “gone all out” to tackle “a new round of heavy rain”. No casualties were reported. The news came after more than 300 people died in rain-triggered flooding in Henan last month. This China Briefing covered the disaster.
CHINA-US COOPERATION: The “climate crisis” is “unlikely” to turn China and the US into “green collaborators” amid political tensions between the two, South China Morning Post reported. The outlet said that, according to researchers and analysts, the two countries might “aggressively compete in their climate policies”. In an op-ed in the Interpreter, political analyst Henry Storey said that “the political dynamics of the current relationship [between China and the US] seem to preclude anything more than a tokenistic level of [climate] cooperation”. On a related topic, Reuters reported that John Kerry, US President Biden’s climate envoy, was expected to visit China next month. Last week’s China Briefing discussed the topic.
COAL: Provincial authorities in China approved 24 coal power plants in the first half of this year, Bloomberg reported, citing a report from Greenpeace. These projects, if built, would have a combined capacity of 5.2 gigawatts (GW), a 79% decline from the same period in 2020, the newswire said of the analysis. It added that the findings showed “the tension in the nation’s efforts to meet climate goals”. Reuters, Climate Home News and South China Morning Post also covered the assessment.
‘ZERO EMISSION’ VILLAGE: Zhuangshang, a village in Shanxi province, has become one of China’s first villages to switch from fossil fuels to total electrification, reported Shanxi Daily. The report said that Zhuangshang locals are now living a “zero emission” life thanks to a new electricity-generating system supported by solar power and energy storage. Residents have replaced gas stoves and coal-fired heating facilities with induction cookers and electric heaters, the outlet said while describing the village’s change.
TREE PLANTING: China plans to plant 36,000 square kilometres of new forest – roughly half the size of Scotland – every year from 2021 to 2025 to “help reach net-zero”, Reuters reported, citing Li Chunliang, a senior environmental official. Li noted that China intended to improve the “quality and stability” of its ecological system “comprehensively” and increase its carbon sink “significantly” by 2035, according to CCTV. The official channel also reported that President Xi on Monday visited a symbolic tree farm in Hebei province, which was built on barren land in the 60s to prevent sandstorms from hitting Beijing. The leader called for the continued development of “ecological civilisation”.
NEW INSPECTION: A new round of central ecological and environmental inspection works officially began yesterday, state-run newswire China News Service reported. This is the fourth batch of the second round of such inspections since 2015 – with each round lasting four years – and will see five provinces and two party-run enterprises undergo a month of probe, the outlet said. This Carbon Brief Q&A explained the significance of such inspections.
Sunsetting coal power in China
A new paper has examined the resource, economic and institutional implications of reducing and replacing coal generation in China with mostly renewable energy and energy storage as early as 2040. It found that to achieve a 2040 coal phaseout, the country would need to install 100-150GW of solar and wind capacity a year and 15GW of energy storage annually from 2020 to 2025. In addition, the corresponding capacity would need to grow to be 250GW and 90GW a year from 2025 to 2040. [China already has the target to install 90GW of solar and wind capacity during 2021, according to this Carbon Brief analysis.] Dr Lin Jiang, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley in the US, is a co-author of the paper. He told Carbon Brief: “The key to build[ing] a renewable-centric electricity system in China is to double down on its world-leading record of investment in solar, wind and storage, and to accelerate the ongoing institutional reforms.”
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