China Burned 53% of the World’s Coal in 2020


Air Pollution in Beijing      Image: CBS News Screenshot

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060, a new report released by energy and climate research group Ember, found that China burned more than half of the world’s coal in 2020. Experts say that China’s current Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) isn’t keeping up with the nation’s rocketing energy demands from the steel and cement industry, which are experiencing new growth due to China’s massive investments in new infrastructure. “Progress is nowhere near fast enough,” said Ember global lead Dave Jones. “World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge.”

Why This Matters: China is the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, but despite announcing net-zero emissions goals in 2020, its latest five-year plan included no updates to its climate goals. Experts have criticized the plan as “vague” because not only does the plan not predict any cuts to emissions until 2030, but it also calls for increasing coal capacity until then. China’s economic growth in industries like steel, cement, and manufacturing means they require more power. While the country managed to satisfy over half of this new demand with renewable energy, it continues to support 70% of total electricity generation by burning fossil fuels.  China’s coal generation rose by 1.7% in 2020, while it fell or remained flat in all other G20 countries.  This news makes the upcoming White House Climate Summit a key moment for the U.S. and China — one of the key invitees.

Finding Balance

China is also the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy and the largest investor in renewables. But to reach China’s current climate goals, solar production would need to increase 16-fold and wind power would need to increase 9-fold. But, as we reported in 2020, the speed at which China must make these changes is disrupting supply chains for crucial infrastructure. In November, China’s largest solar power company suffered a shortage of glass, in part due to the country placing a pause on building new glass production sites citing pollution and over-capacity.

Even as the country cracked down on glass production, it has continued to invest in new coal operations at home and abroad. Additionally, industrial development in the North and West regions of China has resulted in the return of severe “airpocalypses,” which experts worry will have negative impacts on human health, a worry only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Reaching the Summit

Biden has now invited 40 world leaders to a virtual climate summit that will be held in April. Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, are both on the guest list. Both nations were two of five G20 nations to increase their coal generation between 2015 and 2020. The U.S. however, joins China in the two top spots on the list of largest carbon emitters. America, which rejoined the Paris agreement in January, has yet to release its updated NDC but President Biden has said it will be released before his virtual summit.

The summit will “highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good-paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts,” the White House said in a statement. Among the other invitees are 17 member nations of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, responsible for approximately 80% of global emissions, and the heads of countries vulnerable to climate impacts or have demonstrated strong climate leadership. Jinping and Putin have yet to RSVP.

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