The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s power outages shut down factories, fuel climate goal pushback

A vendor grills food at the entrance of an industrial park in Houjie, an area of the southern city of Dongguan that has been hit by power restrictions. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)
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An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a New York University scholar. His name is Li Yifei. The article has been corrected.

Last Friday, the lights went out across northeast China. Cars piled up at intersections under blacked-out stoplights. Residents took to social media to complain about needing to walk up dozens of flights of stairs to get home. Sales of candles increased tenfold, according to state media.

In the city of Jilin, a state-owned water services provider sent out a message warning residents that power cuts “of indeterminate lengths, at indeterminate times, without plan, without warning,” would be the norm until March. (The company later deleted the statement and apologized for its “unsuitable wording and inaccurate content.”)

Amid confusion over what caused the blackouts and how long they might last, influential commentators started to blame the country’s targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, raising fears among environmental advocates that fossil fuel lobbyists were taking advantage of the crisis to undermine climate goals.

“The power shortage is nothing to do with emissions controls,” said Yu Aiqun, a researcher at Global Energy Monitor, a nongovernmental organization. “The fossil fuel industry has been sending out signals that we now need to rethink the pace of transition and make sure that coal can anchor the power system, when, in reality, it was coal power plants not taking up their supposed function that caused the problem,” she said.

The power cuts have shuttered factories, angered residents and added to covid-related disruptions to global supply chains. But the ensuing debate about emissions goals shows how China faces resistance — and misunderstanding — at home over its newfound climate ambition.

China is key to saving the planet from climate change. But it can’t quit coal.

The government has emphasized that the primary reasons for shortages were soaring coal prices and high electricity demand from factories. According to Chinese state media, the price spike was due to reduced mining production because of safety incidents and anti-graft investigations, as well as limited access to imports. (China has blocked imports of Australian coal since last year as part of a diplomatic spat.)

Because of the high price of fuel, many of China’s coal-fired power plants, most of which have run at far below their full capacity for years, refused to operate at loss, according to analysis from the Lantau Group, a research firm.

Even though most analysts agree that supply and demand is the primary cause of power shortages, much of the discussion in China has focused on the government’s “dual control” targets to control energy consumption and industry emissions. Earlier this year, China’s top economic planner called out nine provinces for increased energy consumption in the first half of the year leaving them off-track to meet year-end targets.

In some localities, authorities cited the need to meet their energy consumption commitments when they told manufacturers to cut back production to avoid electricity surges beyond local power grids’ capacity, leading to an unexpected fall in factory activity.

Those statements have led some analysts to argue that governments were being forced to make a choice between economic growth and meeting emissions targets.

CSC Financial, a Chinese investment bank, called the policies “radical” and suggested they may need to be corrected. “Although there have not been any changes to these targets after carbon neutrality was announced, achieving them has become harder,” because of rising demand for exports, it said in a post on WeChat, the social media platform.

Environmental activists, however, argue that blaming emissions targets for the power shortages is misguided. Li Shuo, a Beijing-based campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, noted that the energy intensity targets were made many years ago and have not been enhanced in recent years. “The reason many provinces failed to meet those targets is not because China doubled down on its climate ambition; it’s because China’s economy has become more carbon intensive in recent years,” he said.

Kerry calls on China to do more to tackle climate change crisis

The debate comes as China has sought to position itself as a global leader on climate change, a departure from a previous stance that it, as a developing country, should be allowed to prioritize economic growth over environmental protection.

During the Trump administration, officials in Beijing accused the United States of being a “consensus-breaker and a troublemaker” for international negotiations, over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

Earlier this month, U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry said he hopes China will accelerate its emissions-cutting timeline, after his second in-person meeting with Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua ahead of the U.N. Conference of the Parties climate negotiations scheduled for early November in Glasgow, Scotland.

In a move welcomed by climate advocates, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently pledged that China would stop building coal-fired power plants overseas, his most significant new commitment since announcing in September 2020 that China would peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and reach “carbon neutrality” — or net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — by 2060.

Even for Xi, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, shifting China’s energy system from its heavy reliance on coal toward renewable wind, solar and hydro power is a mammoth undertaking, and the Chinese government has not yet released its plan for the transformation.

At the same time, climate advocates worry that Xi continues to show support for the domestic fossil fuel industry, after he visited a plant that extracts chemicals from coal in central China’s Shaanxi province this month.

China generates over half of the world’s coal-fired power and accounted for 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to Rhodium Group, a research firm. Polluting industries like cement, steel and construction continue to drive its economic growth, pushing carbon dioxide output to recent record highs during its dramatic recovery from coronavirus lockdowns.

National pride in China’s economic might means that power shortages undermining factory output give China’s fossil fuels industry a prime opportunity to argue that cutting back on coal too quickly is dangerous for the country’s long-term development.

“The power shortages escalated so fast that it is natural for industry stakeholders to use it as an opportunity to tweak the headline for their benefit,” said Yan Qin, a carbon analyst for Refinitiv, the data provider.

“When normal residents were affected, we started seeing comments about how provinces were forced to cut energy consumption and hurt economic growth, which can easily create negative views toward China’s broader climate policy,” she said.

Dozens of listed Chinese companies — including Apple and Tesla suppliers — announced shutdowns or delivery delays, with many blaming the order on government departments determined to reduce output to meet energy consumption targets.

Howard Hua, who runs a sheet metal manufacturer in the southern city of Dongguan, said that power rationing had delayed production by three days, creating a backlog of orders. A transition toward lower emissions will ultimately benefit the metals sector, but it will inevitably create a period of “confusion and frustration” for people first, he said.

This kind of failure to effectively coordinate, communicate and enforce emissions curbs could end up undermining China’s climate goals, according to Li Yifei, a scholar at New York University. “A badly thought-out environmental policy ends up antagonizing an entire citizenry,” he said.

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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