China’s Ambitious Goal to Go Carbon-Neutral by 2060
Last year, China committed to going carbon-neutral by 2060, an ambitious undertaking for a country that still relies on coal for more than half its energy needs. The country has invested heavily in solar, wind and nuclear energy. Yet coal-fired heavy industry still made up about 37% of all its economic activity last year, and some provinces are even planning to increase coal-fired power generation. These contradictions and the slow, convoluted transition away from coal are already being felt in Datong, an ancient walled city in the heart of China’s coal country in Shanxi.
To boost China’s post-pandemic economy, policy makers have even relaxed rules to facilitate more local investment in coal power plants. “The fact is coal is still the king here in this country,” says Li Shuo, who follows carbon emissions and energy policy in China for Greenpeace East Asia.
So far, China’s top leaders haven’t specified how they plan to draw down reliance on coal. “China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects and limit the increase in coal consumption,” China’s President Xi Jinping said at an online climate summit convened by President Biden earlier this year. But he shied away from giving a more detailed energy pledge.
Contrary to energy policy analysts’ expectations, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, an economic blueprint released this year, does not cap coal reliance or power use. The plan does aim to increase non-fossil fuel energy from the current level of 15.3% to power one-fifth of the country’s expected total energy usage by 2025. And it aims to continue reducing carbon emissions — but only maintaining, rather than accelerating, existing trends over the previous five years.
Currently, China appears to be pursuing both paths, in order to meet growing domestic demand for electricity. Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, two of China’s major coal-producing provinces, will increase energy production — much of it coal-fired — by 1% and 4% per year. To make its commitment to go carbon-neutral in less than four decades, China will need other provinces to increase their capacity in renewable energy.