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China’s electricity crisis sparks tension ahead of UN climate summit

On the northern edge of a sprawling sugar factory town, welding torches glow as workers complete construction on a gas-fired power plant replace coal burner And covered the surrounding neighborhood with soot.

It is one of several large gas-fired plants being built to pump more electricity into this sprawling industrial city of about 10 million, where increased demand for electricity has led to soaring electricity consumption. Rationing and Blackouts Now Spreading in East China and threaten international supply chains.

This archipelago of power plants underscores an unsettling reality in the global fight to slow climate change. China burns more fossil fuels than any other nation, making it the planet’s top source of greenhouse gases warming the Earth. And his hunger for electricity is only increasing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised that his country Start reducing carbon dioxide and other gases Generate by burning coal, gas and oil by 2030 and then stop adding them completely to the atmosphere by 2060. But climate scientists warn that nations must now turn away from fossil fuels to avert the most devastating consequences of climate change.

Just weeks before an important UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, attention has turned to China and whether it will do more to cut emissions. The world’s top energy agency said last week that China has the “means and capacity” to reduce its pollution. Its actions could have consequences for the planet’s climate, already at a critical moment.

“We want to see ambition from China,” said Alok Sharma, a member of the UK Parliament who is overseeing the international climate talks. “China is responsible for about a quarter of all global emissions right now. And they’re going to be an important part of making sure we have success.”

China has taken some important steps this year to curb the use of coal, which is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. In April, Xi vowed that China would “strictly control coal-based power generation projects.” He said the country will reach the peak of coal consumption by 2025 and then reduce it over the next five years.

Following Xi’s promise, local governments slowed approval for new coal power projects within China, following a big jump in 2020. Some provinces, such as coastal Shandong, mandated in the summer that some of their oldest, least efficient coal-fired plants should be closed.

In September, Xi announced at the United Nations that China would stop funding new coal power plants in other countries. Several US experts said it was an important step but not enough.

“The main program is for China to pledge a major cut in its emissions this decade, as the US, the European Union and others have done,” said Todd Stern, the climate envoy led by the former president. Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter.

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s international climate envoy, noted a month ago in the city of Tianjin that China still plans to create 247 gigawatts of new coal power. This is almost six times Germany’s total coal power capacity. China’s plan to contain global warming at a relatively safe level “will really undo the ability of the rest of the world”, he said.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. (US State Department via AP)

“Can the world afford China, as already the No. 1 emitter, to continue to increase those emissions over the next 10 years? No,” Kerry said in an interview.

Over the past three decades, China’s growth in energy use has been explosive. Every year, China burns more coal than the rest of the world and almost as much oil as the United States.

But it is also investing heavily in clean energy. China is a world leader in hydropower, solar power and wind power. While hydroelectric power in China has mostly run out of rivers to build dams for energy, it has been building solar power and wind power faster than any other country in recent years.

Nevertheless, it is not enough.

“Renewable capacity growth is still not in line with demand growth” for electricity, said David Fishman, an energy analyst at Lantau Group, a Hong Kong consultancy.

The United States and Europe are able to reduce emissions more easily as their economies grow more slowly. US energy use was nearly flat in the decade before the pandemic and then fell sharply last year. Europe’s energy use was slowly declining even before the pandemic.

The United States in particular has been able to reduce emissions by gradually shifting from coal power to a greater reliance on natural gas, which emits about half its carbon dioxide when burned, and by increasing its own renewable energy.

But China needs to find a way to produce even more energy while reducing emissions at the same time – a tall order.

The United States and other countries are pressing China to agree to help limit global warming this century to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. This is the limit beyond which scientists say the planet will experience irreversible damage. As countries continue to pump carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the Earth has already warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

China is one of the few countries that have not yet agreed to a target of 1.5 degrees.

Construction on the Zhongtang gas-fired power plant in Dongguan, China, one of several new gas plants being built in the area to meet the country’s energy needs as it runs off coal, is September 28, 2021. (Gilles Sabri / The New York Times)

Complicating matters China’s view that climate change is primarily a US responsibility. The United States has released more man-made carbon dioxide than any other country over the past century, although China is now the largest current emitter by a wide margin and is rapidly catching up in cumulative emissions.

China also resists pressure from the Biden administration to step up its climate ambitions. That’s because in 2017 former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, an agreement between nations to fight climate change. That decision essentially halted climate progress by the United States for four years.

“They don’t believe the US is in a position to tell them what to do,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert on Chinese climate policy at Georgetown University.

Separately, the Biden administration is furious with China for threatening to withdraw cooperation on climate change if the United States continues to challenge Beijing on human rights and other issues.

China’s significant growth in energy consumption is driven by its manufacturing sector. China has a fifth of the world’s population but produces a third of the world’s factory goods. Global dependence on China for exercise equipment, air conditioners and other products has increased as economies reopen after 19 months coronavirus The pandemic started.

However, the biggest driver of China’s emissions is its appetite for steel and cement, key materials for apartment towers, bullet train lines, subways and other large construction projects. The production of these two materials accounts for about a quarter of China’s carbon emissions.

In the past two weeks, power outages have caused the temporary closure of thousands of factories. Elevators have been closed in low-rise buildings in southeast China. Some municipal water pumping stations in northeastern China have been forced to stop operations. Blackouts, which are also affecting households, make it even easier to justify further investment in fossil fuel power plants.

Tang Yusong manages a factory that produces custom screws in Southern Dongguan. Across the road, the foundation is being laid for three giant gas-burning General Electric turbines. Despite the noise, he is eager to build a power plant.

Hu Jian, an employee at a small mechanical shop that shuts down the Ningzhou gas-fired power plant in Dongguan, China, on September 28, 2021, says his shop was plagued by power cuts last week. (Gilles Sabri / The New York Times)

“Electricity is very important,” said Tang, whose workshop was closed for four days in late September due to a power outage. “We need electricity just as we need to eat and sleep.”

As China runs into an electricity shortage, investment in coal mines – which originally closed around 2016 – has resumed.

The construction of coal-fired power plants is allowed by 2025. But many in China’s power sector expect new coal plants to be banned from that point forward. Chinese power companies are now trying to decide whether to complete more coal power plants to exceed the deadline. Coal power may still be profitable in some areas of coastal China where clouds and weak winds make solar and wind power less viable.

Renewable energy in inland China sometimes generates more electricity than nearby consumers, but then produces far less at other times. Just five years ago, three inland regions that generate abundant solar and wind power power – sparsely populated Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Gansu – were wasting two-fifths of that power.

To address this problem, China has built ultra-high-voltage transmission lines connecting the country’s interior with hubs located near the coast. But connectivity still has a way to go. “New demand could exceed clean sources of energy” if transmission networks are expanded, Lewis said.

Beijing is also trying to harness market forces to expand renewable energy. The Chinese government has ordered power utilities to charge industrial and commercial customers five times more when electricity is scarce, and mainly generated from coal, when renewable energy is filling the grid.

Regardless of Beijing’s objectives, provincial governments have other ideas.

“There’s a tug of war going on right now,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School who studies China’s climate policies. “The central government is trying to limit coal production, and the local governments are doing the opposite. They want to restart plants or build new ones to get their local economies moving again after the pandemic. “


Song Haven, a bicycle mechanic who works and lives near a new gas-fired power plant being built on the northern edge of Dongguan, said he certainly doesn’t miss the coal plant.

“Clothes get dirty if you hang them outside. After parking here for a while, the white cars got dirty.

After that experience, Song is not enthusiastic about power plants in general. But if a new power plant doesn’t replace the coal-fired one, he fears, China’s four decades of rapid economic growth could end.

“Without electricity,” he said, “life would return to the 70s.”

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