Chinese premier calls for more coal production as electricity demand soars

China’s premier has called for increased production of coal to stave off mass blackouts, as early summer heatwaves have prompted record electricity usage.

On Friday, authorities again issued high temperature warnings for about a dozen provinces across the central and northern provinces, after consecutive days in the high 30s.

As people sought to escape the heat this week, state media reported, citing the State Grid Corp of China, that electricity demand was up 8.8% in north-west China compared with last year, and by 3.2% in northern China. Records for maximum electricity loads were broken in Shandong, Henan and Jiangsu.

The premier, Li Keqiang, “urged tapping into advanced coal capacity, securing power supply and resolutely preventing power outages amid the peak summer season”, according to state media. The reports said Li also called for greater “efforts to ramp up efficient and clean coal power production”.

Authorities are hoping to avoid repeats of an energy crisis last year in which there were widespread power cuts, but there are concerns that increased coal production will hamper China’s ability to meet its promises on emissions reductions.

In 2020 the government announced a goal of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. Last month China posted its third consecutive quarter of emission reductions, a feat that analysts said was achieved because of Covid restrictions, curbs on the property development market, and efforts to boost clean energy.

China is a major investor in wind and solar, but its electricity system still relies overwhelmingly on coal-fired power, using more than 50% of the total national supply, according to a research paper published in Nature this month.

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“Although China already features the world’s largest installed power generation capacity for renewable energy, a profound transformation of the power system will still be required over the next 30 years to achieve carbon emission goals,” the paper said.

Observers say China’s government has, in practice, renewed its focus on coal-fired electricity to ensure stability, despite the massive investment in wind and solar energy. A confluence of factors contributed to the 2021 crisis, including strict energy rationing designed to meet efficiency targets coming up against energy-intensive infrastructure projects designed to kickstart the pandemic-afflicted economy. The trend towards coal production and energy self-reliance is also being exacerbated by the market volatility resulting from the Ukraine war.

The Netherlands, Germany and Austria have made similar moves in response to the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion.

“It is fair to say that after the high note set by the carbon neutrality announcement in 2020, China’s climate momentum is waning,” said Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace. “It will certainly serve as a delaying factor for China to achieve deep decarbonisation over the long term … Stronger political will is needed to weather China through the current down season of climate action.”

Jiang Yi, a Tsinghua University academic and member of the Chinese Communist party’s most recent national climate change expert committee, said the increase in coal production was not inconsistent with the government’s carbon pledges.

“Before a perfect new power system has been built and the flexibility and storage capacity of the power system have been completely solved, it is also necessary to rely on coal-fired thermal power to ensure supply,” Yi said. “On the one hand we are grasping supply assurance, and on the other hand we are also vigorously developing zero-carbon energy systems to achieve the replacement of coal. The two are not contradictory.”

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Sophie Geoghegan, a climate campaigner for the Environmental Investigations Agency, said increasingly common and severe heatwaves around the world were increasing the demand for cooling such air conditioning.

“The way that AC is used, as soon as it gets warm, everyone turns theirs on … putting huge strain on the grid, which means that either there are power cuts or peak power is switched on, and peak power is run by coal plants,” she said. “It’s a catch-22: it gets warm, so you turn on your AC, which increases global temps even further. So China has increased coal production to address a rising demand for cooling, but it’s a short-term fix which has long-term implications.”

Additional reporting by Xianqian Zhu, Chi Hui Lin and agencies