China Struggles with Power Cuts, Sparking Debate Over Climate Goals

Image: NASA/Tim Kopra, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor

Following China’s announcement that it would cease all coal investments abroad, a series of power cuts have plagued the Chinese public. Power cuts are not uncommon in the country, but they’re being exacerbated by the pandemic, coal prices, and more this year. Now, a battle is brewing between economy-focused critics, who say that the cuts are being caused by China’s emissions goals, and environmentalists, who believe the cuts originate from the country’s overreliance on fossil fuels.


Why This Matters: China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally and has been under recent pressure from the US and other UN nations to cut back its production and use of coal, which makes up more than half of its energy supply. The UN has said that it is imperative to cut coal use if the world hopes to reach the goals of the Paris agreement, but across the world, it’s become clear that politics at home have a significant impact on global emissions progress. The debate between maintaining China’s rapidly growing economy and making even more ambitious climate commitments could not only make or break China’s targets but also the world’s.


In the Dark

Last week, power cuts swept across northeast China, with reports of residents climbing dozens of flights of stairs and candle sales increasing by 1000%. The cause: rising demand for Chinese goods and emissions-cutting measures affecting coal production. These factors have led to an increase in the cost of coal, but because the Chinese government controls energy prices, many coal plants have chosen to reduce their potential losses by reducing output. Forty-four percent of China’s industrial activity has now been affected by the outages, and banks worldwide have begun reducing their projections for the country’s growth.


In response, Chinese analysts have blamed the nation’s climate commitments, which already lag behind the Paris agreement by ten years, and gone so far as to call them “radical.” But environmentalists say that emissions goals aren’t the problem, instead asserting that China’s addiction to coal has placed the country in a precarious position. “The reason many provinces failed to meet those targets is not because China doubled down on its climate ambition,” said Li Shuo, a campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “It’s because China’s economy has become more carbon-intensive in recent years.”

Scholars say that this situation is a prime example of incongruence in China’s climate and energy strategy. To cut back emissions without cutting power, says Liu Yifei, a scholar at New York University, China will need to build communication and organization into its climate policy. “A badly thought-out environmental policy ends up antagonizing an entire citizenry.”

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