Oct 12, 2021 - Energy & Environment

China's coal convulsion threatens climate goals

Illustration of a globe resting on a scale.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's energy crisis is a wild card in the fraught efforts to secure a meaningful deal at the UN climate summit in Glasgow.

Driving the news: Power shortages and the push for more coal supplies are in tension with calls for Chinese officials to accelerate their climate efforts.

  • Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, per state media, said officials must "take into account...the contradiction between the supply and demand of electricity and coal" as they assess their emissions timeline.
  • President Xi Jinping has previously vowed an emissions peak before 2030, but advocates are hoping for more aggressive moves ahead of the summit that have yet to emerge.

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest carbon emitter.

What they're saying: "The energy crisis will make China's climate politics complicated," Li Shuo, a China analyst with Greenpeace, tells Axios via email.

  • "The timing here is unfortunate — the optics of releasing a bunch of climate policies while struggling with power supply is one that policy makers have to consider carefully," he added.
  • The Bloomberg piece is more blunt, noting that China's power crisis and its threat to economic growth is "prompting policy makers to rethink the pace of the nation’s energy transition."

Between the lines: Some of China's coal shortage is due to extreme weather, in the form of heavy rains and flooding in the coal-producing Shanxi region. Flooding has knocked dozens of mines out of commission.

Graph showing China's coal consumption against the global total.
Data: BP; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The chart above helps explain why limits on coal supplies are creating a crisis in China and why it matters for climate change talks.

The big picture: China accounts for roughly half of global coal demand to power its huge industrial base and provide electricity to its population.

  • Achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement depend on the pace of China's transition from most CO2-emitting fuel.
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