Chinese officials reported Monday that their coal production surged to its highest level in years, the same day that officials in India’s capital readied a shutdown due to air pollution, a one-two punch from the developing world that showed the difficulty of combating global warming just after the end of a landmark U.N. conference.
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. China appears ready to use cheaper, dirtier coal as a way to alleviate its citizens’ pain when the cold season 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. This tactic allowed the major coal-burning countries more time to continue burning coal and brought some experienced climate negotiators to their knees.
“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. He said that this is false. “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. Officials from India and China are furious at the suggestion that America’s leader, which has had the highest levels of carbon pollution in its history ,, would be lecturing those burning more coal.
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. Both countries stated that they will “raise ambition” in the coming 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. China’s and India’s representatives demanded that the language suggesting that the world will abandon fossil fuels be diluted at the last minute. If they did not change the language from “phase out unabated coke” to “phase down the fuel,” they threatened to destroy the whole agreement.
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 the developed nations to stop using coal. According to the state-run Global Times, he stated that we don’t need slogans. We need real actions.
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. According to the United States, a “phase-down” is what was considered the U.S. ceiling. China claimed it was their ceiling.
“They did not walk back from their ceiling,” the official said. He said that he was shocked by India’s concern at the end. “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.
Air pollution had eased last year during the coronavirus slowdown. Air quality has become a serious problem again this year due to a combination economic recovery and an abnormally long monsoon. Particulate matter comes mainly from India’s northern agricultural center, where farmers burn their stubble in clearing fields. This happens during an extremely short window.
China, in the grips of an energy crisis, has ramped up coal production to address power shortages, stressing that energy security is the government’s top priority. The world’s largest polluter and consumer of coal produced 357 million tons of it last month, according to the data released Monday.
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 also stated that China would cease funding coal plants in foreign countries.
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. Beijing reiterated earlier climate promises in its revised commitments.
“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. She said that once winter arrives, it is impossible to limit the use of coal when basic living standards must be protected.
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 happen painlessly. It will not happen in an instant. But it has to be done.”
Kuo reported from Taipei, Taiwan, Birnbaum from Washington. This report was contributed by Gerry Shih, Pei-Lin Wu, and Steven Mufson, both from Glasgow in Scotland.