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WINNING THE BATTLE, NOT THE WAR

Four charts that show why China fought hard for coal at COP26 

Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua waves to the camera
Reuters/Phil Noble
A victory, or a pyrrhic victory?
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China kept a low profile for much of the two-week climate summit in Glasgow, but in the final hours fought hard along with India to dilute the wording around coal in the Glasgow Pact.

The two countries demanded a change in a key line in the final text of the pact, from phasing-out coal, to “phasing-down unabated coal.” The matter of a few letters reduces the urgency with which the world’s largest coal polluters—China and India—move away from the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel. Alok Sharma, the UK minister serving as COP president, had hoped to come away with a definitive message consigning coal to history and made an emotional apology for the final outcome.

The negotiations over coal were held in a closed room with only the world’s four biggest polluters—China, India, the US, and the EU 27-country bloc, along with Sharma—in attendance. A report by Politico described the despair of countries left out of the negotiations but likely to suffer its effects: “Islanders and some Europeans expressed their shock at the display of raw power that had left them sidelined. For Pacific islanders, whose fate hangs on the eradication of coal power, it was bitterly hard to watch.”

Here’s a look at the two countries’ dependence on coal, which shaped their stance at COP26.

China consumed more than half (pdf, p. 49) of the world’s coal in 2020—from around 20% half a century ago—and its continued dependence on the fossil fuel was starkly illustrated in the weeks before the summit. A shortage of coal led to a power crunch that shut down factories and left households in the dark. China responded by ramping up coal production to build up its reserves ahead of winter, capping off a coal power spree that added nearly one coal plant a week in 2020. Last month (October 2021), China produced 357 million tons of coal, an increase of 4% from the previous year and the highest level since 2015.

After China, India accounts for about 11% of the world’s coal use, followed by the US at 6%.

In 2020, China commissioned 38.4 GW of coal capacity comprising 76% of the global total (50.3 GW).

In much of the rest of the world—though not India, of course—coal is waning. Outside China, the global coal fleet declined by 17.2 GW in 2020. Major coal users in South and Southeast Asia may be seeing the last of their new coal plant projects come online, with Bangladesh in July canceling 10 previously approved coal-fired power plants, while the Philippines has announced a moratorium on new coal plants, and Indonesia’s state utility has said it won’t build new coal plants after 2023. 

In the United States, where the coal industry has a powerful lobby and remains an emotive issue, former president Donald Trump boasted of a coal boom. Instead, 52.4 GW of coal power was retired during his presidency and new coal power hasn’t been added in recent years. (China is retiring coal too, but at nowhere near the pace at which it adds it.)

China is a leader in renewable technology, and the scale of manufacturing in the country helped drive down costs of wind turbines and solar panels, which benefited the rest of the world. But renewables, including nuclear and hydropower, still make up a relatively small share of China’s energy mix—14% in 2019—compared with coal.

China’s 14th Five Year Plan aims to grow renewables and other alternative energies to 20% of all energy consumption between 2021 and 2025. According to the Global Energy Monitor, the country’s demand for power will outpace the targeted growth of renewables. China will have to make up the shortfall by increasing coal power into 2025.

China’s coal emissions shows its level of responsibility, and why countries need China and India onboard with phasing out coal. Overall global emissions can’t be reduced without China, a position the country seemed willing to leverage.

COP26’s Glasgow Pact marks the first time fossil fuels were mentioned in a COP text. From one perspective, this can count as a battle won. But it also shows the considerable headwinds on climate action when the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions gets its first, watered-down mention 26 years after the UN’s first climate summit.

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