Connecting Regions of Asia.

Behind China’s Energy Conundrum

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Even in normal times, power outages and natural disasters in China alarm people as temperatures plummet. But this year has not been normal. A sudden energy crunch shuttered factories in northeast China and cut power to residential compounds. Pregnant women and older adults found themselves trudging up long flights of stairs in darkened hallways. Earlier weather “anomalies” reduced wind- and solar-powered generation capacity. Then China’s coal belt suffered heavy flooding. When freezing temperatures arrived three weeks earlier than usual, anxious officials urgently demanded an “all-out” boost in coal production. Some coal mines, mothballed in a bid to curb emissions, abruptly roared back to life, churning out the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

All of this made for terrible optics when global leaders gathered this month for the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26. But Chinese President Xi Jinping was a no-show. U.S. President Joe Biden criticized the absence of China’s leadership—“a gigantic issue, and they walked away”—and sniped at China’s unwillingness to sign onto his big pledge to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Meanwhile, green policy gurus hoping for bold new commitments from Xi have been mollified with lip service and incremental shifts. Top Chinese climate change negotiator Xie Zhenhua defended his government’s updated national climate plans, pointing out that Beijing now vowed to reach peak carbon “before 2030” and carbon neutrality “before 2060,” rather than “by” those dates. 

Beijing’s been talking green for years, but the road to renewables still looks pretty black. This matters because China’s the top greenhouse gas polluter on the planet. It’s the world’s top coal consumer as well as its top producer. Chinese officials cite many reasons for China’s obsession with energy security and its economy’s continuing coal addiction. China’s economy is still developing, they say, and it isn’t fair for developed nations that have grown willy-nilly in the past to cramp Beijing’s development. “It would take 71 years for the EU, 43 years for the U.S., and 37 years for Japan, all of which are developed economies, to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality. However, China has set itself a time limit of only 30 years,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. He insisted developed nations bore an unshakable historical responsibility for greenhouse emissions during their 200 years of industrialization.

Beijing isn’t alone. Many other countries have been chastised for talking the talk without walking the walk, including Russia, India, and the United States, where Biden was pleading for increased oil output from OPEC to stem rising energy prices at home while grandstanding in Glasgow. And China has made strong statements about embracing green energy. It has the world’s most ambitious civilian nuclear program and one of its most robust renewable-energy build-outs. Xi’s goal for China to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 is no small matter; it will require an investment of up to $46.6 trillion by 2060, said Zhang Xiaohui, economics dean of Tsinghua University’s PBC School of Finance. And unlike in past years, when China simply sought to offshore its dirty energy, Xi is taking steps to rein in China’s sooty footprint overseas: At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Xi vowed that China would not finance new coal-fired power projects abroad.’

Such pledges “caught many people by surprise,” acknowledged Li Shuo, senior global policy advisor for Greenpeace. Even Biden’s climate change envoy, John Kerry, told CNN in Glasgow, “the Chinese see climate to be as existential as it is to us.” The big question is whether Beijing’s timetable is viable and sincere. “If China is serious about reaching carbon neutrality in 2060, it should peak at 2025, not 2030,” said one energy analyst in Beijing. “The curve between 2030 and 2060 is too steep—to the point where some people feel it’s science fiction.”

But the gap between China’s climate ambitions and its energy realities are made a lot clearer when one examines exactly why Xi wouldn’t travel to Glasgow. 

Viewed through the prism of domestic Chinese politics, there was never much chance Xi would attend COP26 in person. First, his government is fanatical about eliminating COVID-19; Xi hasn’t left China since the pandemic began. Glasgow clashes monumentally, moreover, with a key Chinese Communist Party meeting that kicks off Monday. It’s expected to trigger a period of intense political activity and represents the most important political fight of Xi’s career.

Once a year, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee holds a plenum; this year, between Nov. 8 and Nov. 11, more than 300 members of the 19th Party Congress will meet for what is expected to be an exceptionally pivotal Sixth Plenum. Xi needs to be there in person at this key gathering if he hopes to achieve his ultimate goal in the autumn of 2022. That’s when, during the 20th National Party Congress, Xi is slated to officially jettison the two-term limit for party head, which had been observed by his recent predecessors, and go for a highly unusual third five-year term. Assuming he does so, Xi will have consolidated power in a manner unparalleled since the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. 

Had Xi gone to Glasgow, he’d likely be in quarantine right now, just as he needs to be promoting his own ambitious agenda. Party plenums involve political horse-trading and factional tussles. This time, sinologists also expect a new so-called historical resolution summarizing the CCP’s first 100 years and laying the groundwork for Xi’s third term. It would only be the third such resolution in the party’s 100-year history: Mao oversaw one in 1945, as did former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1981. Now Xi can write his own party narrative. It’s expected to be full of “praise and self-praise” for Xi, in the words of Deng Yuwen, a one-time party loyalist who is now a critic of the Chinese Communist Party and is based in the United States.

But the runup to the plenum has not been auspicious. After all the alarm about power outages, new jitters erupted in early November when officials instructed citizens to stock up on food and “a reasonable amount of daily necessities.” The comment went viral. Some anxious Chinese assumed food shortages were coming; others worried an invasion of Taiwan was imminent. 

At a time when Xi is trying to cement his place in history, there’s zero room for citizens to be freezing, starving, or receiving shoddy medical treatment (which goes some way toward explaining the country’s insistence on stamping out every case of COVID-19).

When power supplies dwindled alarmingly last month, it was a no-brainer that Beijing would resort to its default solution: coal. Authorities opened previously closed mines and built new coal-fired facilities with a vengeance. Xie, China’s top climate negotiator, didn’t even try to hide the fact that China “may need to build some new coal-power plants to ensure the safety and stability of our power grid. But [they] will all apply the highest possible standard in terms of technology, emissions, and energy consumption.”

On the surface, electricity outages reflected a mismatch between supply and demand. As the pandemic appeared to recede, Chinese manufacturing rebounded more quickly than expected, spiking energy demand. The cost of state-provided electricity is cheap and subsidized; serious outages resulted. And there are structural flaws: inadequate reform, limited availability of renewables, foot-dragging by vested interests in the coal sector, and tussles between the central government and local government bureaucracies.

One big roadblock has been local authorities’ reliance on carbon-intensive real estate and infrastructure development to fuel growth, despite years of exhortations from the central government to rebalance the Chinese economy more toward a Western-style consumer-driven economy. “We need to pivot away from infrastructure-oriented growth to focus on domestic consumers—meaning ‘green’ consumption, not just eating more beef and driving bigger cars,” said Li of Greenpeace.

But that age-old tug-of-war between the center and the localities has also dogged Beijing’s efforts to go green. As one Chinese proverb says: “The sky is high, and the emperor is far away.” Local and provincial officials keep betting on coal—a source of local jobs and patronage—and try to pass off central government directives with lackluster compliance. But Xi wants to make sure the emperor is even closer. This year’s energy consumption and intensity targets turned out to be strict and nonnegotiable. “Local governments may have been anticipating some relaxation of energy consumption quotas in an effort to bolster economic growth. But in fact, the central government is very determined,” reported the Global Times.

Paradoxically, the electricity crunch might offer Beijing an opportunity to go green more quickly. For one thing, it brought home the need to diversify energy sources instead of relying so heavily on coal use, which currently accounts for nearly 57 percent of China’s primary energy mix. For another, it brought home the need to introduce more market-based pricing into the energy system. China’s top economic planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, admitted that “soaring costs for power generation and unchanged electricity prices may have also contributed to the power shortages,” and it cracked down on coal hoarders and others who manipulated a lopsided energy market.

China, for now, appears to have pumped the brakes on its big green push, overwhelmed by short-term emergencies and political exigencies. But green policymakers like to say Beijing under-promises and overdelivers. And Xi, despite his privileged background, has more hands-on experience with energy than most world leaders—even compared to Biden’s crusade against methane.

In 1969, at the age of 15, he was sent to work on a farm in coal-rich Shaanxi province, where he helped villagers construct the province’s first biogas-powered lamp, thanks to methane produced from agricultural manure. But, like his current push to clean up China’s economy, success proved elusive at first. A blockage prevented gas from reaching the lamp. Xi peered into the end of the tubing and, according to state-run Xinhua News Agency, said “when we finally cleared the obstruction, the pipe splashed manure over my face.” Ultimately successful, the province’s first biogas lamp made Xi so popular he was elected village party secretary in 1974; the rest is history. 

Xi wants a third term. But he also wants to be seen as a leader who promises and delivers—albeit, on his own terms. And he doesn’t care how dark or dirty the process seems at the time.

Courtesy – foreignpolicy.com

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