The burst of bad news for the climate coincided with a Monday virtual summit between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where Biden planned to enlist China’s help in averting a drastic worldwide temperature rise.
But the recent boost in coal production by the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter shows Biden may have little leverage over the developing world’s use of fossil fuels, analysts said. Spurred by high natural gas prices, Beijing appears to be readying to burn dirtier, cheaper coal to ease its citizens’ economic pain as cold weather sets in.
This dilemma was on full display Saturday, when China and India seized hold of climate talks in their final hours to weaken language calling for phasing out fossil fuels. The tactic gave the two major emitters extra runway to keep burning coal, and drove some seasoned climate negotiators to tears.
“China, like every other country in the world, is not only trying to minimize carbon emissions but also trying to balance that with economic needs,” said Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and an economics adviser to the Obama White House.
“Sometimes in climate discussions, we fall into a trap of thinking that countries are only trying to minimize emissions. That’s not true,” he said. “They’re trying to balance between economic growth, local air pollution and avoiding disruptive climate change.”
Chinese coal production hit a six-year high last month, according to data released Monday by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. Indian and Chinese officials bristle at the idea that the leader of the United States, the country that has released the most carbon pollution in history, would lecture those who are burning more coal today.
During the two-week meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, the United States and China struck a surprise deal to cooperate on climate issues. The two countries said they would “raise ambition” over the next decade. Though short on specifics, many delegates welcomed any sign of cooperation from the two countries that together account for about 40 percent of global emissions.
Then came Saturday. Huddled together on the plenary floor, China and India’s envoys demanded a last-minute dilution of language suggesting the world would abandon fossil fuels. They threatened to torpedo the entire agreement unless they could change the text from a commitment to “phase out unabated coal,” to a pledge to “phase down” the fuel.
Delegates said there was fury inside the room as the maneuvering went down. Alok Sharma, the British politician who led the talks, demanded Sunday that China and India “explain themselves.” A day earlier, he came close to breaking down as he announced the slimmed-down final climate deal.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday that differences in development and resources should be “respected.”
“Before calling on all countries to end their use of coal, the energy needs and shortfalls of these countries must be considered,” he said. “We encourage developed countries to take the lead in stopping the use of coal. What we need is not just slogans but real action,” he said, according to the state-run Global Times.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who claimed the summit deal was a “game-changing agreement,” maintained that the weakened language did not make “that much of a difference.” He said the summit had still sounded the “death knell” for coal.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks candidly, said that as the Chinese and American delegations hammered out their joint declaration, the language on coal was an issue. The United States said that a “phase down” was the U.S. floor. China said it was its ceiling.
“They did not walk back from their ceiling,” the official said. But he said he was surprised that India was as concerned as it was at the last moments. “We thought we had worked that out in the statement.”
India has demanded far more support from wealthy countries in the battle against climate change.
But even as it was resisting tougher climate commitments in Glasgow, New Delhi was contending with a crippling new wave of air pollution.
The city had started to come back to life in recent months following a deadly wave of the coronavirus this spring. But harmful airborne particles have spiked to 20 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization, and the city government this week closed schools and government offices and paused construction projects.
Now it has prepared a plan to impose a full lockdown of the capital for a few days, a covid-era tactic that may be redeployed to beat back the pollution. Such a measure had never been used before the pandemic.
Air pollution had eased last year during the coronavirus slowdown. But this year, a combination of an economic revival and the abnormally long monsoon season have combined forces to make air quality again a problem. Much of the particulate matter is coming from crop-burning in India’s northern agricultural heartland, where farmers are burning their stubble to clear fields during an unusually short window.
Beijing’s continued reliance on coal, which accounts for more than half the country’s power generation, reflects its competing priorities. China has promised to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, while raising its share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption. Xi has also promised his country would stop funding overseas coal plants.
Still, China has come under increased criticism for its climate commitments not being ambitious enough. Xi, who has not traveled outside China since January 2020, did not attend the climate summit, and Beijing did not commit to more ambitious pledges, giving the country room to expand coal consumption into the next decade. In its updated climate commitments, Beijing reiterated its earlier promises.
“I think the current energy crunch in China also makes it very hard for China to consider any stronger pledge on phasing out coal,” said Yan Qin, a research associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
In response to power shortages that forced electricity rationing on factories and households across more than half of the country, China has increased coal imports and approved a raft of new coal mines. Regulators have ordered coal mines to expand production, increasing capacity by an additional 220 million tons a year.
Weaning itself from coal will be no small feat for China, especially as electricity demand ramps up during the winter, when much of the country depends on coal for heating.
“There is no way to eliminate within 30 years,” said Yu Lihong, a professor at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai focusing on energy and economics. “Once winter comes, there is no way to control the amount of coal used when basic livelihoods must be guaranteed,” she said.
Coal has been the lifeblood of China’s economic boom, climate activists say, a fact that makes the current energy transition that much harder.
“For China to quit coal is like for a chain smoker to quit cigarettes,” said Li Shuo, senior adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. “It won’t be pain-free. It won’t happen overnight. But it has to be done.”
Kuo reported from Taipei, Taiwan, Birnbaum from Washington. Gerry Shih in New Delhi, Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Steven Mufson in Glasgow, Scotland, contributed to this report.